The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry is promoting a 2019 legislative agenda it hopes will make for more principled local judicial systems.
After years of suffering reputation as a “judicial hellhole" - where claimants from all over the country bring their legal actions - state leaders are taking on the widely held perception that St. Louis and Kansas City courts have become overly plaintiff-friendly as it relates to high-profile mass and class action suits.
“Over the past few years, one of the main problems in St. Louis has become the number of cases filed there with no connection at all to the region,” Justin Arnold, general counsel for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, told the St. Louis Record.
“The venue law that the state crafted back in 2005 was really kind of strong, but since then all these plaintiff attorneys have resorted to using all kinds of maneuvers to get their cases in the courts here. We’ve allowed ourselves to become a magnet for these kinds of cases and the trend shows no signs of slowing.”
At least not on its own.
The Missouri Chamber’s 2019 list of civil justice reforms include promoting the state’s existing venue and joinder laws as a way of freeing up the court system for local residents, while, at the same time, absolving taxpayers of the responsibility of being forced to foot the bill for all the high-profile, out of forum litigation that has become commonplace.
Missouri Chamber members are also pushing a change that would re-institute punitive damage caps and enact a statute of repose that would free companies from liability related to previously produced products where the standards governing an industry have changed.
Arnold points to all the litigation involving Johnson &Johnson, where a trial court judge recently upheld a $4.69 billion verdict against the company in an asbestos related suit where 22 women claimed they contracted ovarian cancer from using the company’s Baby Powder and other talc products, as a perfect example of the kinds of cases the state should be seeking to steer clear of.
“Of the 22 women in that suit, 17 had zero connection to Missouri,” he said. “Only one of the five Missouri women had any connection to St. Louis. That case is a perfect example of a case that had no business being tried here, but at the end of day caused the cases of some legitimate Missourians to be pushed to the back of the line.”
With Missouri also being home to such verdicts against Johnson & Johnson of $55 million, $70 million and $72 million, Arnold said the state’s reputation when it comes to such matters will continue to suffer.
“Lawyers see a $4.7 billion verdict as a bulletin board to come here and clog up our court system,” he said.
Indeed, The American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) recently branded the St. Louis court system a “judicial hellhole,” ranking the city number four on its list of the country’s worst, largely based on its “legislative ineptitude” and “lawsuit abuse.”
ATRA president Tiger Joyce further described the situation as “a year plagued by scandal,” making “St. Louis a top contributor to Missouri’s nickname, the ‘Show Me Your Lawsuit’ state. 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. A small group of attorneys have created their own profitable cottage industry in Missouri by filing these types of lawsuits."
In addition to standing by its products based on scientific data, Johnson & Johnson officials have also argued that at least some of the cases ruled against them had no business even being litigated in the St. Louis court system.
“We’re now at a critical mass with this being a top priority,” Arnold added. “It is absolutely vital that we pass and enact legislation that lets companies know we are, in fact, pro-business and that this is an important issue for the state. “