St. Louis City named among the top 'judicial hellholes' by civil liability reform group

By John Breslin | Dec 10, 2018

St. Louis has been branded number four on the list of "judicial hellholes" by an organization that wants major reform of the civil liability system.

The American Tort Reform Association, which is mainly funded by corporations, said the city's judiciary was "plagued by scandal" and "lawsuit abuse."

“A year plagued by scandal, legislative ineptitude and continued lawsuit abuse makes St. Louis a top contributor to Missouri’s nickname, the ‘Show Me Your Lawsuit’ state,” the ATRA's president Tiger Joyce said.

“Judges continue to allow blatant forum shopping, disregarding U.S. Supreme Court precedent, and judges allow plaintiffs’ lawyers to introduce ‘junk science’ in the city’s talc litigation. The legislature had the opportunity to address many of the litigation abuses plaguing the courts, but failed to pass the much-needed reforms.”

Judges in the city are continuing to allow forum shopping, where individuals from outside the state can sue companies with little or no connection with the region. This is despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the practice.

They also allowed plaintiff lawyers to "introduce junk science in the city’s talc litigation."

Further, 'no-injury' consumer class actions continue in the city's court, while "excessive lawsuit advertising has inundated jury pools, making it difficult for defendants to receive a fair trial."

"The legislature was unable or unwilling to pass needed legal reforms," according to the ATRA.

The ATRA identified the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MPPA), the state's consumer protection law, as a magnet for plaintiff lawyers.

It claimed lawyers were filing "shakedown class action lawsuits alleging that product labels, advertisements, or other business practices are misleading where no reasonable consumer has been misled or lost money.

"They take advantage of a 2016 Missouri Court of Appeals decision that subjects companies to lengthy and expensive litigation, including a full jury trial, even for the most ridiculous of claims," the ATRA report stated.

The group noted what it described as a "wave" of lawsuits against the producers of candy, and claims that they are involved in "deceptive marketing" over the amount of product in a particular package. The producers of Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, and Junior Mints have faced suits.

It is alleged that the packages are not entirely filled "notwithstanding the fact that content weights were clearly printed on the boxes."

"A small group of attorneys have created their own profitable cottage industry in Missouri by filing these types of lawsuits," the ATRA said. "All they have to do is find a willing plaintiff."

The ATRA said that while, from its perspective, there is a great need for reform of the judicial system in Missouri, the "prospect for change is bleak."

"The plaintiffs’ bar exercises disproportionate influence within the system that appoints Missouri judges to the bench at all levels," the organization argues.

The group identified the way appellate court judges are appointed in the state, claiming a plan adopted in 1940 had become dysfunctional. It claimed the Missouri Plan "functioned more or less evenhandedly until about 30 years ago."

"Since then, the system has been captured by plaintiffs’ lawyers with predictable results," the ATRA stated, adding the judges are appointed by a seven-member panel, which includes three non-lawyers appointed by the governor, three lawyers elected by the Missouri Bar Association, and the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. The all serve for six years.

The ATRA claims this "appointment plan ensures that the liability-expanding interests of plaintiffs’ lawyers are disproportionately represented."

It added, "Over the past two decades, every panel between 2002 and 2012 included at least one former member of the Board of Governors of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys."

Republicans, the ATRA said, introduced various a "strong, desperately-needed legal reform agenda for Missouri’s 2018 legislative session, but "when it came time to deliver, legislators failed miserably."

 "Trial lawyers were able to infiltrate the legislature and affectively (sic) stymy (sic) the efforts." 

Republicans control both houses of the legislature by large margins.

The bills considered were venue reform, amendments to the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA), legislation to allow evidence of seat belt non-use, punitive damages reform, and an asbestos trust transparency bill.

The ATRA also mentioned a jury award against Johnson & Johnson. The jury awarded $4.69 billion to 22 women claiming their ovarian cancer was caused by talc powder. This included more than $4.1 billion in punitive damages. 

The four-week trial in St. Louis City Court focused on whether J&J's talc in its signature products Baby Powder and Shower to Shower contained asbestos.

Attorneys for both sides claimed the other fabricated science during closing arguments.

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