JEFFERSON CITY – Legislation that would make it more difficult for plaintiffs from outside St. Louis to file their lawsuits in the city's court system has been approved in the state Senate and now goes to the House.
The Senate approved Senate Bill 7 on Monday by a 24-7 vote. The bill on Tuesday was sent to the House for consideration.
Senate Bill 7 would put restrictions on the joinder process – the combining of two or more plaintiffs who have similar claims against a defendant. Proponents of the legislation say plaintiff attorneys are using joinder of plaintiffs to get around Missouri’s venue requirements. They say plaintiff lawyers are using joinder to piggyback the suits of out-of-state residents onto those of Missouri residents.
The tactic is particularly prevalent in St. Louis City Circuit Court, according to the legislation’s proponents, who say St. Louis juries have developed a reputation of being plaintiff-friendly.
For example, in July, a St. Louis Circuit Court jury awarded a combined $550 million in actual damages and $4.14 billion in punitive damages in a suit filed by 22 plaintiffs who alleged that asbestos in Johnson & Johnson talcum powder caused ovarian cancer. Only five of the 22 plaintiffs in that case were Missouri residents.
The proponents of the legislation also say that, of the 13,252 plaintiffs in mass tort lawsuits filed in Missouri in recent years, only 1,035 are from Missouri and only 242 are from St. Louis.
Richard AuBuchon, executive director of the Missouri Civil Justice Reform Coalition, has said the numbers reflect "a crisis of out-of-state plaintiffs using our courts to litigate their claims."
AuBuchon, in a recent interview, said the growing number of talcum cases being filed in St. Louis is only part of the reason the legislation is needed.
"No, it's bigger than that. The talcum cases are only a piece of this puzzle," he said.
Pharmaceutical companies, medical product makers and Bayer, the maker of Roundup weed-killer, also are frequent targets in mass-tort suits filed in St. Louis.
Senate Bill 7 is sponsored by Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar.
“We’re clearly out of balance. Our courts are being used as the nation’s courtroom,” Emery said during a hearing on the bill. “Senate Bill 7 will put an end to this abuse.”
Opponents included Sen. Jill Schupp, a Democrat from Creve Coeur. During debate, she said individual defendants should be able to join together in suits to take on corporations.
"There’s no reason they should have to file suit individually," Schupp said. "It gives them the opportunity to put forth a case and say, ‘Look it's not just me, its many of us.’”
The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys has opposed changes to the joinder rules, arguing that the purpose of joinder “is to be more efficient, reduce costs, and reduce litigation.” The group also argues that joinder creates a more level playing field for plaintiffs who try to take on large corporations.
AuBuchon, however, said plaintiff attorneys are abusing joinder.
"This legislation is in response to a growing trend of cases being filed in the city of St. Louis. It is giving the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri a bad national reputation," AuBuchon said.
He added, "This is an economic development issue as well as a fairness issue. Missouri's courts and taxpayers are footing the bill for plaintiffs from across the country to file their lawsuits here. It's time for them to go back home."
The summary for Senate Bill 7 states: “In a civil action where the plaintiff is injured outside of the state, claims arising out of separate purchases of the same product or separate incidents involving the same product shall not be joined regardless of whether the claims arise out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences with a common question of law.”
The summary further states “that in tort actions two or more plaintiffs may be joined in a single action only if each plaintiff can independently establish proper venue, except that if two or more plaintiffs in such a civil action could establish venue in an adjoining county that has less than 150,000 inhabitants, then the plaintiffs may be joined in such adjoining county. Also, a plaintiff having proper venue in a county with 75,000 or less inhabitants may join in another currently pending action in a proper venue of another county with 75,000 or less inhabitants.”
Proponents of the legislation include the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, which has stated that "plaintiffs with little or no connection to Missouri file cases in plaintiff-friendly St. Louis and Kansas City courts in hope of getting big settlements. This is clogging our judicial system, costing Missouri taxpayers and delaying justice for Missourians who have properly filed their cases. Missouri has been repeatedly listed as one of the worst Judicial Hellholes in the country due to the litigation hotspots caused by lax venue and joinder rules.”
Johnson & Johnson is appealing the $4.7 billion verdict.
The company issued the following statement after the verdict: "Johnson & Johnson is deeply disappointed in the verdict, which was the product of a fundamentally unfair process that allowed plaintiffs to present a group of 22 women, most of whom had no connection to Missouri, in a single case all alleging that they developed ovarian cancer. The result of the verdict, which awarded the exact same amounts to all plaintiffs irrespective of their individual facts, and differences in applicable law, reflects that the evidence in the case was simply overwhelmed by the prejudice of this type of proceeding."