MADISON COUNTY (AP) — Few of the tourists who drive old Route 66 through the rural Illinois town of Edwardsville are aware of its true economic engine: a booming business in asbestos lawsuits that attracts law firms from across the country.

Since 2005, the lawsuits have helped generate a $14 million surplus for Edwardsville and solidified Madison County’s place at the center of a long-running national debate over personal-injury cases.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers flock to the courthouse 25 miles north of St. Louis because of its reputation as a favorable venue for clients sickened by the cancer-causing mineral. Defense lawyers representing global corporations quickly follow.

Asbestos lawsuits filed in the county have skyrocketed in recent years, with caseloads that surpass similarly specialized courts in New York, Philadelphia and other large cities.

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