This week is Lawsuit Abuse Awareness Week in Illinois and, shockingly, 2021 has our state’s economy and business community in an even worse place than we were this time last year. The Prairie State’s anti-business legal system is still in place, and COVID-19 restrictions are still a major factor. But we are now contending with skyrocketing inflation, a labor shortage, and misguided new energy legislation that could bring even more pain for small businesses and manufacturers.
As a fourth-generation owner of my family’s manufacturing business in Lyons, I am on the front lines of our community’s struggle to survive the hardships of the past 18 months. The small business community employs thousands of workers, supports local economies, and drives the innovation that brings new investment and jobs to the state, but policymakers seem intent on destroying everything we have built.
Over the years, Illinois legislators have continued to make life harder for manufacturers by supporting a twisted web of complicated, anti-business laws and regulations that put us at a strategic disadvantage when compared to other states. And even through the recent pain of COVID-19, higher inflation, and labor crises, our “representatives” haven’t missed a beat. The Illinois workers and small businesses they claim to care so much about are actually the biggest victims of their shortsighted policies.
First up is product liability. In many of these lawsuits, the question of who is at fault doesn’t even matter. Manufacturers can be sued if an accident occurs when someone uses a safe, approved product, no matter what the circumstances might be. We include instructions, but how can we force someone to read them and use the product properly, or guard against someone not paying attention?
Trial lawyers have made a cottage industry out of product liability cases, encouraging consumers to sue en masse for unproveable accidents. Many of us without the resources to defend ourselves around the clock are forced to settle out of court, regardless of the merit of the case. Trial attorneys know this and go fishing for such cases. This leads to higher prices for consumers, employees that must be laid off, and even small businesses being forced to close their doors just to cover legal expenses.
Similarly, trial lawyers exploit Illinois’ anti-arbitration statues to force workers compensation settlements outside of court when small businesses can’t afford legal fees. I can personally attest – safety protocols and accident prevention are manufacturers’ first priority, but accidents do happen from time to time. But again, many trial lawyers aren’t in pursuit of justice in Illinois, they are just after a paycheck. They know many businesses can’t afford to go to court and must settle even if they could have won a case on the facts. The same song and dance play out yet again – workers get laid off, prices go up, and businesses struggle to survive. Even worse, legitimate accident victims who deserve just compensation often get left out to dry.
The latest addition to the growing list of stacked costs facing Illinois businesses is Senate Bill 2408, a self-described “clean energy” bill that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law in September. In line with other anti-small business legislation, SB 2408 will be paid for on the backs of workers and business owners by dramatically spiking energy costs. Our lawmakers obviously don’t care, though. Of all the times to pass legislation that will raise energy prices, they chose to do so during a period of runaway inflation, continued public health restrictions, and a labor shortage.
Right now, we need solutions. And the best solutions will support small businesses and manufacturers. Partisan agenda items must be left on the sidelines, while product liability loopholes are closed, and mediated arbitration is restored. Furthermore, environmental initiatives must be flexible to the current economic climate and more sensitive to near-term consequences. Lawmakers have a chance to help Illinois out of this mess, but right now they are headed in the wrong direction.
Zach Mottl is the 4th generation of his family to own and operate Atlas Tool Works, Inc. (Lyons, IL).