Ben Franklin famously warned that “you may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.” These words of wisdom appear to be lost on the Illinois state legislature, which recently abolished the ten-year statute of repose for personal injury claims related to asbestos exposure under 735 ILCS 5/13-214. Far from an esoteric legal issue, the amendment has become the front line in the latest battle of the national divide on the issue of tort reform. Some have warned that the Madison County Illinois asbestos docket, already one of the busiest and most plaintiff friendly in the country, will see a wave of new litigation from plaintiffs who missed the deadline to bring suit. The change to the statute however, may not be the seismic shift that some have forecast.
The statute in question, commonly known as the “construction statute,” previously held that “no action based upon tort…may be brought against any person for an act or omission of such person in the design, planning, supervision, observation or management of construction, or construction of an improvement to real property after 10 years have elapsed from the time of such act or omission.” The amendment adds a subsection which reads that the limitation does not apply to “an action that is based on personal injury…resulting from the discharge into the environment of asbestos.”
This legislative action hasn’t abolished the statute of limitations in all asbestos-related claims. It has only abolished the ten-year statute of repose for claims that fall under the limited ambit of the construction statute. In other words, defendants who are commonly named in asbestos suits won’t likely see a sizeable increase in claims unless they are also involved in the construction industry.
For those who previously fell under the protection of the statute, however, the change could be as dramatic as advertised. Given the long latency period for many asbestos-related diseases, contractors, engineers and architects were often immune from suit, as some persons exposed to asbestos on a given job site may not discover their condition until well after the 10 year statute of repose had expired. With the amendment, these Defendants may find themselves named in lawsuits as often as manufacturers of asbestos-containing products. Fortunately for them, many cases filed in Madison County arise out of exposures from other states, and in those cases, the statute will not likely apply.
Consistent with the abolition of the statute of repose, the state also recently passed a law reducing civil juries from twelve to six members. This is a shift which generally favors Plaintiffs as smaller groups are more likely to be influenced by emotion or a strong personality in the jury room.