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Ruling finds company using 'judicial hell hole' defense

Ruling finds company using 'judicial hell hole' defense

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EDWARDSVILLE • A Madison County judge, in a ruling filed Wednesday, revealed that a Chicago public relations firm recommended tying defense of a class-action lawsuit over water pollution with a campaign painting the local courts as a "judicial hellhole" friendly to frivolous lawsuits.

The revelations come in an order by Circuit Court Judge William Mudge on a range of issues submitted to him in the case accusing agribusiness company Syngenta, a producer of the chemical atrazine, of polluting area groundwater.

The judge ordered the release of previously undisclosed communications between the Jayne Thompson & Associates public relations firm and Syngenta. In the documents, the judge said, the public relations firm outlines a plan to portray the Madison County court system as a source of "jackpot justice."

Pro-business groups, including the American Tort Reform Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have in past years criticized Madison and St. Clair counties as being too plaintiff-friendly.

The ruling said the documents show, in part, a strategy to "enhance the public's perception of Syngenta and the herbicide it manufactures at the expense of the Madison County judicial system."

"The proposal actually outlines an aggressive public relations strategy to build upon or create a hostile attitude toward the Madison County judicial system," Mudge wrote.

The law firm Korein Tillery filed a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta and other atrazine manufacturers in 2004 in Madison County court. The suit, filed on behalf of local sanitary and water districts, accuses the companies of polluting groundwater with the weed killer used on area farm fields.

Syngenta has stood behind the product's safety, refuting studies about the herbicide's environmental and health effects.

The 13-page proposal from the public relations firm to a Syngenta senior communications manager was dated Oct. 3, 2005.

Neither Jayne Thompson & Associates nor attorneys for the firm or Syngenta could be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Lawyers with Korein Tillery, who asked Syngenta to turn over the documents as part of pretrial discovery, leading to the judge's order, said in a statement the strategy was an example of large companies spending millions of dollars to subvert justice.

Stephen Tillery, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the case, said the companies were trying to "prevent the people of our region from exercising their right to seek damages for injuries caused by corporate misconduct, defective products, fraud and deceptive practices."

The judge ordered Syngenta to hand over the documents to the plaintiffs within 14 days. The next hearing in the case was rescheduled and has not yet been set.

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