A judge in Illinois, in a ruling released on April 20th, revealed that a Chicago public relations firm recommended tying the defense of a class-action lawsuit over water pollution to a campaign painting the local courts as a “judicial hellhole” friendly to frivolous lawsuits. This shocking revelation is found in the order issued by Circuit Court Judge William Mudge on a range of issues submitted to him in a pending 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 outlined 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.
A class-action lawsuit had been filed against Syngenta and other atrazine manufacturers in 2004 in the Madison County Circuit 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 October 3, 2005 and came while the case was being defended by the law firm representing the company.
The lawsuit was filed by the Chicago law firm Korein Tillery. Lawyers with the firm, asked Syngenta to turn over the documents as part of pretrial discovery. This led to the judge’s order. The firm said in a statement that “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 the documents over to the Plaintiffs within 14 days.
This sort of thing has no place in the judicial system. Claims in lawsuits should be decided based on the facts of individual cases with judges and juries applying the applicable law. Attempting to influence judges and jurors with a public relations campaign, especially one that puts a bad light on the courts and parties, is just plain wrong.
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