Phil Goldberg, Director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Civil Justice, testified in the Missouri Legislature on Monday, January 30 to urge the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform to adopt a package of bills to address venue and joinder abuse in the state. The testimony, provided on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, explained that ensuring that lawsuits are brought in the proper venue should not be partisan issue.
“Missouri has become America’s courtroom,” Goldberg told the legislators. “People who live outside of Missouri, are alleging injuries outside of Missouri, and are suing companies who are not from Missouri are nonetheless filing lawsuits in Missouri – and they are doing so by the thousands. Legislators from both parties have an interest in seeing that the Missouri courts provide even-handed justice and that litigation gamesmanship does not take over the courts.”
The most favored destination is the City of St. Louis, where out-of-state claims have skyrocketed in the past three years. The Office of State Courts Administrator’s statistics have found that filings in St. Louis from 2014 to 2015 jumped from 3,000 to more than 12,000. In 2016, there were 140 aggregated mass tort cases pending in St. Louis, with 8,400 plaintiffs in these cases having nothing to do with Missouri. Also, St. Louis is also now the 4th most active jurisdiction for asbestos filings, and most of the claims have nothing to do with Missouri or Missourians.
Generally, the proper place for a lawsuit is where the plaintiff lives, where he or she was injured, or where the defendant has its business. Those states have laws to govern these allegations. But, as Bloomberg News reported in September 2016, the claims are being filed in St. Louis because the city “has developed a reputation for fast trials, favorable rulings, and big awards.” In short, Goldberg continued, “They like the ballparks here rather than their ballparks at home.”
Consider the major St. Louis verdicts grabbing national attention. The plaintiffs were from Alabama, Alaska, South Dakota, California, Michigan, Minnesota and Oklahoma – none from Missouri. They all involved allegations of injuries outside of Missouri. None of the defendants were local to the City of St. Louis, and all three trials ended in awards for tens of millions of dollars. By contrast, comparable claims in other states resulted in dismissals or defense verdicts. It was for this reason that St. Louis was named the worst “Judicial Hellhole” in the nation.
The legislation addresses this problem by clarifying that each plaintiff must independently establish that St. Louis is the proper venue for his or her lawsuit. He or she cannot, as is being done now, hitch his or her out-of-state claim to a local St. Louis plaintiff’s case in an effort to get around the state’s venue laws. The ability to join claims can make sense when family members are injured in a single accident, but not when plaintiffs have nothing to do with each other.
In addition to creating an undue burden on Missouri taxpayers, “the current situation sacrifices the ability of the courts to dispense justice,” Goldberg testified. “St. Louis residents, who may have a car accident case, a medical malpractice or employment matter, will have to wait behind the earlier filed out-of-state plaintiffs. Also, even the best judges may take shortcuts in an effort to process thousands of claims. Rather than make sure each claim is resolved on its own merits, they may consolidate claims or encourage mass settlement even when not warranted.”
The Committee is expected to vote on this package of bills over the next couple of weeks.