Pros and cons of mandatory arbitration in Illinois
People filing significant personal injury claims of less than $50,000.00 who reside in and around Chicago may likely be exposed to the "mandatory arbitration" process. Mandatory arbitration requires claims within certain damages limits to be tried before a panel of arbitrators before the parties are allowed an opportunity to present their cases to a judge and jury in circuit court. There are currently 11 judicial districts in Illinois requiring mandatory arbitration for cases with maximum claims of $50,000.00, including the districts encompassing Cook, Will, DuPage, Lake, DeKalb, Kane, Kendall and McHenry Counties. Some of these districts set a minimum amount of damages at $5,000.00; others set the minimum at $10,000.00. Arbitration hearings are presided over by three practicing attorneys and/or retired judges within the circuit.
On paper, there are distinct advantages to the mandatory arbitration process: Arguably, the program is an effort to reduce the length and cost of litigation in Illinois. The arbitration process was created to reduce the necessity of extensive (and expensive) discovery by providing for the streamlined admissibility of certain evidence in the litigation. Deadlines for disclosure of facts, claims, defenses, witnesses and documents are set. Certain documents, such as medical records and bills, are admissible at hearing without the necessity and expense of presenting testimony from physicians or other medical professionals. Arbitration hearings are limited to two hours, as compared to the days- or weeks-long ordeal that a jury trial may become. Awards are issued by the 3-person panel of arbitrators within hours of the close of the hearing, giving the parties a result much more quickly than may happen when a jury deliberates after trial. Though the arbitration result is technically non-binding, a failure by one party to participate in good faith can result in that party losing its right to reject the award, thus making the arbitration award binding, and giving the parties closure to their case.
In practice, however, mandatory arbitration may actually extend the litigation process, a situation that is typically more frustrating for the plaintiff than for the defendant or the defendant's insurance company. Illinois Supreme Court Rule 93 provides that any party who has participated in the hearing in good faith has the ability to reject the arbitrators' award. Should the award be rejected, then it is transferred to the judicial circuit's trial call, after which the parties usually find themselves facing the normal pre-trial discovery process, including costly and time-consuming doctors' and experts' depositions. Although the rejecting party must pay a "rejection fee," the amount of that fee is only $200 for awards of $30,000.00 or less and $500 for awards greater than $30,000.00. This fee does not typically act as a disincentive to reject an award the defendant is unhappy with. The practical result of this right to reject is that many awards are rejected, potentially causing a longer overall litigation process, rather than the intended shorter one.
Regardless, it is important for anyone injured by another's negligence to seek counsel from an experienced attorney as soon as possible to evaluate the claim and help obtain fair compensation for your damages, whether it be through settlement, arbitration, or litigation at trial.
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