TRAP, TRASH & TRICK
Using what some defense counsel have come to call “trap, trash and trick” tactics, plaintiffs’ lawyers through the summer of 2016 had engineered about 2,100 individual claims, grouped in roughly 260 separate lawsuits nationwide, alleging with no scientifically sound evidence that talcum powder causes ovarian cancer. Noteworthy is the fact that two thirds of these claims have been filed in the City of St. Louis Circuit Court. And three gigantic talc verdicts there this year, totaling $197 million, were for plaintiffs from Alabama, South Dakota and California.
Trap. Among other reasons, plaintiffs’ lawyers are eager to trap talc defendants in St. Louis because Missouri is one of a shrinking minority of holdout states that have yet to adopt the more exacting Daubert standard for expert testimony. Named for a 1993 Supreme Court precedent, Daubert is the standard now used in all federal courts and about 40 state court systems. It effectively requires judges to act as gatekeepers in reviewing the substance of expert testimony before it is presented to a jury in order to weed out fanciful evidentiary theories that haven’t passed peer-review muster.
Plaintiffs’ bar efforts to trap talc cases in St. Louis are aided by the state’s rather pliable venue law, which allows lawsuits to be filed in any county where at least one individual claimant — among the scores comprising a typical talc lawsuit — resided when her alleged injury occurred.
A circuit-splitting 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit also makes it harder for a Missouri defendant to remove a case to federal court when a local anchor-claimant has been added only to keep the litigation in state court. And by keeping the number of claimants in their respective talc lawsuits under 100, plaintiffs’ lawyers also avoid the federal Class Action Fairness Act’s threshold for removal to federal court.
Trash. Before, during and after they’ve managed to trap their lawsuits in St. Louis, personal injury law firms make sizeable investments in local television advertising to trash defendants and their products with wholly unfounded claims. Ostensibly packaged as client solicitations, the incessant ads more practically function as a means to influence potential jurors. To wit, talc defendants filed a motion in late July seeking to have a trial moved “outside the St. Louis media market and at least 100 miles away, in order to minimize the jury taint” from such ads.
The motion offered extensive analysis of plaintiff firm ad-buys, noting that, from July 2015 through June 2016, more talcum powder litigation ads were aired in the St. Louis media market than in any other market nationwide. In March 2016 alone, 23% of all talcum powder litigation ads airing across the country aired in St. Louis, even though that market comprises just 1% of the national television audience. Furthermore, a survey of potential St. Louis jurors revealed that more than 6 in 10 recall being exposed to ads linking talcum powder use to ovarian cancer, and that a sizeable majority of those who recalled the ads had formed an “unfavorable” opinion about talcum powder.
Trick. With their trashing phase complete, plaintiffs’ lawyers then work to trick preconditioned jurors into believing their expert witnesses’ testimony alleging a causal relationship between talcum powder use and ovarian cancer. Never mind that the scientific, medical and regulatory communities are united in saying that no such relationship exists. Even in generally plaintiff-friendly New Jersey a judge in September 2016 dismissed two talc cases scheduled for trial after deciding that the plaintiffs’ experts who’d testified in St. Louis are not qualified to testify in the Garden State.
Nevertheless, defendants’ pleadings to have those so-called experts excluded from St. Louis trials fall on deaf ears. Judges there invariably allow the introduction of this junk science and, with visibly ill women or their surviving loved ones as sympathetic clients, practiced personal injury lawyers then pluck jurors’ heartstrings and persuade them to come back with outlier verdicts that fly in the face of genuine science.
A similarly shameless trick was played on Missourians in late June when lame-duck Governor Jay Nixon, a grateful past recipient of generous campaign contributions from trial lawyers, vetoed legislation that would have finally adopted the more exacting Daubert standard for expert evidence and thus made the state less hostile to defendant companies and the economic growth and job creation they provide. But lawmakers are expected to try again in 2017, and with a newly elected governor who’s less dependent on plaintiffs’ bar cash, hope springs eternal.