St. Louis, Missouri is a beautiful city with many attractions, but few want to be dragged there involuntarily. Yet that has been the case for a number of corporate defendants in recent years, who have been sued in St. Louis City courts in mass tort litigation by thousands of plaintiffs from all over the country, despite their having no connection at all with St. Louis or even Missouri.
Why St. Louis? The City is a small urban geographical area in the middle of the greater St. Louis area (including St. Louis County), with a reputation for overly plaintiff-friendly juries. It holds a prominent place on the American Tort Reform’s list of “Judicial Hellholes,” which cites litigation “infused with junk science,” massive verdicts, excessive lawsuit advertising poisoning the jury pools, abusive actions, and blatant forum shopping.
So it’s no surprise that plaintiffs’ attorneys in the talc ovarian cancer body powder litigation picked St. Louis city courts for one of their favored venues. Beginning in 2014, Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier, Gordon & Rees client Imerys Talc America, were sued in numerous multi-plaintiff cases, with hundreds of out of state and non-St. Louis plaintiffs. Trial after trial occurred over the next four years, with verdicts in the tens of millions, and even in the billions, against Johnson & Johnson. The trial court repeatedly denied motions challenging jurisdiction, venue, and joinder. The court also denied motions to exclude what the defendants deemed (and other courts had found to be) unreliable scientific evidence that talc-based powders even can cause ovarian cancer.
How did this all happen in St. Louis? It happened because when one St. Louis plaintiff filed suit there, dozens of out-of-state and non-St. Louis plaintiffs joined in her suit. The St. Louis judge ruled that if one plaintiff had proper venue in St. Louis, all the others could piggy-back on her suit no matter where they were from or where they were allegedly injured, thus establishing venue for everyone. The defendants argued that joinder could not create venue under Missouri law, but were shot down time after time. Motions, briefs, arguments, and pre-trial writs, all to no avail; trial after trial, with the court trying claims of non-Missouri plaintiffs for the most part.
Then the defendants got the attention of the Missouri Supreme Court. In response to writs of prohibition filed by Imerys and Johnson & Johnson, the Court stayed a 2017 trial set to begin with a plaintiff who the defendants argued had proper venue in the county, not the city, to review the venue issue that had created a litigation hub in the city courtroom. On February 13, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court appears to have ended litigation tourism in St. Louis, in a significant ruling that should stop non-St. Louis plaintiffs from bringing their claims there, and halt the pervasive forum shopping. In two companion suits the Missouri Supreme Court held that a tort plaintiff must establish proper venue for her own claims—she cannot merely join in a suit filed by a St. Louis city plaintiff and obtain proper venue by piggy-backing. In other words, joinder cannot create venue. Period. “It cannot and does not,” as evidenced by Missouri rules and “40 years of Supreme Court precedent.” Click here for a prior post on cases rejecting “jurisdiction by joinder.”
The 4-3 opinion reads strongly, as do the dissents. But there is no mistaking that the forum shopping that brought hundreds, even thousands, of plaintiffs into St. Louis city courts even though they had no relation to the forum should be at an end. And that is good news for those who don’t want to be dragged into St. Louis.