Merger of St. Louis city-county would dissolve court where mass litigation has taken root

By Record News | Mar 4, 2019

ST. LOUIS - Merger of St. Louis city and county would shut down one of the nation’s most wide open courts, as the 22nd Judicial District would cease to exist under the current “Metro City” merger plan.

All cases and judges from the city’ 22nd district – which dockets more than 1,000 civil suits per month - and the county’s 21st Judicial District would roll into a Metro City district.  

In the fiscal year ending last June 30, plaintiffs filed 13,542 civil suits in the city compared to 5,144 in the county. 

In proportion to population, the city courts docketed about nine times as many civil suits as the county courts. 


Burlison  

Mass litigation took hold in the city several years ago after plaintiff firms saturated the region with advertising seeking clients and generating sympathy among potential jurors.  

A suit needed only one Missouri plaintiff in order for dozens of plaintiffs from other states to ride piggyback. 

In 2014, 64 Missouri plaintiffs and 1,224 others filed 19 suits against six drug makers and two pelvic mesh makers. 

In 2015, 156 Missouri plaintiffs and 2,139 others filed 29 suits against four drug makers and two pelvic mesh makers. Of those, 13 suits against mesh maker American Medical Systems sought damages for 66 Missouri plaintiffs and 1,078 others. 

In 2016, 195 Missouri plaintiffs and 2,351 others filed 38 suits against eight drug makers and two mesh makers. In 10 suits against Bayer, 62 Missouri plaintiffs and 737 others claimed injuries from Essure. 

As 2017 began, 107 Missouri plaintiffs and 1,143 others filed 17 suits against four drug companies. 

On Feb. 28, 2017, Missouri Supreme Court Justices kicked potential piggyback plaintiffs out of Missouri courts. 

They found a Norfolk Southern employee couldn’t sue the railroad in Missouri for injuries he suffered in Indiana, where he lived and worked. Their ruling held that Norfolk Southern does business in at least 21 states and its Missouri business amounts to two percent, not enough to establish jurisdiction. 

The piggybacking didn’t stop, because city judges could still exercise jurisdiction over local companies. 

Since the Supreme Court decision, 416 Missouri plaintiffs and 3,322 others have filed 57 suits alleging injuries from weed killer Roundup. 

Although the Supreme Court restricted piggybacking, all claims preceding their decision remain valid. 

The claims will clog courts a long time, whether in St. Louis or Metro City. 

As of last June 30, the 22nd district faced a backlog of 26,081 pending civil suits. 

That was more than the rest of the entire state. 

The county’s backlog stood at 5,366 suits, a fifth as many as the city. 

Mass drug litigation typically lands in the court of city circuit judge Rex Burlison. 

Last year he presided over a jury verdict of $4.69 billion for women claiming talc in Johnson & Johnson products caused ovarian cancer. 

Johnson & Johnson petitioned the Eastern District appellate court for relief. 

Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fiscer, who would likely hear an eventual appeal, issued an “informal” opinion last September. 

He picked Burlison for the annual Chief Justice’s Circuit Judicial Excellence Award. 

He honored Burlison at a joint annual meeting of the Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri at the Hilton Ballpark Hotel in St. Louis. 

Although consolidation of the 21st and 22nd districts would rattle the litigation landscape nationwide, the merger plan skips over it lightly. 

The plan rests on a premise that consolidation would reduce spending. 

Yet it rejects creation of a single fire department as too costly, without explaining why those costs would go up rather than down. 

While it sticks to a premise of lower cost, it lays a foundation for a big new government on top of the old governments in new forms. 

It calls for a strong Metro City mayor, possessing all powers of the current city mayor and county executive. 

The mayor would hire four deputies for community engagement and equity, economic development and innovation, public health and safety, and community development and housing. 

The mayor would run a central planning and zoning department carrying out a regional economic development plan. 

Voters would elect 33 Metro City council members, in districts about as populous as Missouri House districts. 

The council would employ professionals for constituent services and research. 

Without them, “legislators would lack the time and ability to meaningfully engage in public debate and might fall short when addressing community level issues of the citizens who elected them.” 

A single police department would protect Metro City. 

The plan states, “The primary goal of a single professional police department is not to concentrate resources in one area or another…Instead, by utilizing more complete data and having adequate access to regional resources, a single department can make real time decisions about how to deploy those resources, accounting for the mobile nature of crime.” 

Metro City would tax retail sales, at a rate the plan doesn’t divulge. 

Municipalities would turn into municipal districts providing fire protection, parks, recreation, trash, recycling, and other services Metro City wouldn’t provide. 

Municipal districts could impose sales taxes for special services and would collect property tax, utility taxes, and fees. 

Sales taxes designated for repayment of debt for transportation development and tax increment financing districts would stay with municipal districts. 

All current debt and outstanding liabilities would remain within the municipal district in which they were incurred, including pension liabilities. 

The plan makes no specific recommendations about schools but states that two of its recommendations would help schools. 

One would reform tax increment financing to restore lost funding to schools. 

Another would move families toward better schools through zoning for economic and social mobility. 

The plan states that families in an under performing district would have the ability to move and attend school in a district where the needs of the children are met. 

The plan states that, “Neither St. Louis city nor county could credibly claim to be business friendly, and the region suffers because of it.” 

For a more friendly approach it proposes consolidation and centralization of licensing and regulation. 

The plan suffers from a split personality. 

It claims St. Louis would rank ninth in population, between Dallas and San Diego, but it holds up Indianapolis and Louisville as models. 

The sponsor of the plan, Better Together, aims to put it on a statewide ballot in November 2020. 

Some opponents currently circulate petitions for a vote in city and county only. 

Spire chief executive Suzanne Sitherwood, Bryan Cave lawyer Arindam Kar, and Washington University associate dean Will Ross formed the planning group. 

The group later added Boeing Company program manager Kira Van Niel and Adven Capital Partners chairman Joe Adorjan.

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