We recognized the annual Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week nationwide last week, and 2020 certainly looks a lot different than any other year. Especially in Illinois, COVID-19 has decimated our state’s economy and put thousands of businesses and employees out of work. One thing that has remained the same this year, however, is lawsuit abuse. Our state’s skewed legal system incentivizes frivolous lawsuits that threaten small businesses and exacerbate the unemployment crisis.
As a fourth-generation owner of my family’s manufacturing business in Lyons, I know firsthand that manufacturers have played a central role in Illinois’ economy for decades. We employ thousands of workers, support local economies, and manufacture essential goods that drive innovation and bring investment to the state. To me, and the thousands of other manufacturers in the Prairie State, it makes no sense why we now find ourselves at such a disadvantage compared to manufacturers elsewhere across the country. Over time, lawmakers have created a complex, anti-business legal system that hurts manufacturers the worst. And the kicker? Our civil justice system actually hurts the very workers and consumers it claims to protect.
This lose-lose system starts with product liability statutes that are so out of touch with reality that someone can sue the manufacturer of a safe, approved product when an accident occurs, no matter who is at fault. If a consumer is not paying attention or does not follow product instructions and gets injured, we can still be sued. How does this make any sense?
Product liability in Illinois is being stretched in its interpretation. Trial lawyers love our state for its generous system that allows them to go fishing for reasons to sue so that they can take home big court winnings or large settlements that pad their own pockets. The trial bar donates heavily to Illinois lawmakers, lawmakers ensure the system remains in place, and so the cycle continues. Unfortunately, everyone else is kicked to the curb. Small businesses are pushed to the brink or shut down, employees are laid off, and consumers pay higher prices when manufacturers must factor in costly legal expenses.
In the same vein, accidents are a fact of life, and manufacturers lead most businesses across the country when it comes to safety protocols and accident prevention. In Illinois, though, plaintiffs’ attorneys seek out workers’ compensation cases as a reliable source of income. Because these disputes routinely bypass mediation and go straight to the courtroom, facts and safety protocols get thrown to the wayside as businesses are forced to stomach expensive court costs or agree to a settlement as the lesser of two evils. This situation leaves businesses in a bind and hurts employees in the end. Attorneys walk away with their paychecks, while businesses are faced with whether to lay off employees, raise prices, or close down for good. Yet again, no one wins but attorneys.
Thankfully, restoring fairness to the Illinois legal system is not as complicated as it might seem. There are loopholes in product liability statutes that can be closed – manufacturers and other businesses should be shielded from lawsuits due to accidents they have no way of preventing. Similarly, mediated arbitration must be reinserted into workers’ compensation disputes and made standard practice. This way, small businesses will avoid damaging consequences and can work with employees to settle disagreements fairly and without lawyers jockeying for disproportionate damages or bigger fees. Workers could have input into lasting changes that make everyone safer and keep everyone employed.
During COVID-19, we are all on the same team. With everything else going on in the world and businesses and employees both worried about staying afloat or receiving their next paycheck, reforming skewed provisions that benefit no one but attorneys is in everyone’s best interest. This stability will allow employers to restore jobs and provide security to Illinois workers. Our state is tired of a complicated legal system that puts trial attorneys as a priority, and there is no better time than the present to restore balance and institute necessary reforms.