The City of St. Louis is gaining a reputation as a favorite forum for those filing mass tort cases. According to one attorney interviewed for this report, St. Louis “is Philadelphia all over again.” Objectively, it may be too soon to say that, but the jurisdiction warrants scrutiny.
St. Louis was named a Judicial Hellhole in 2002 and 2003 for being home to the state’s highest verdicts and a disproportionate share of the state’s personal injury and medical malpractice claims. In 2005, the legislature enacted statewide comprehensive reforms to reduce unfair joint and several liability, put reasonable limits on noneconomic damages in medical liability suits and tighten venue laws to preclude unreasonable forum shopping. The reforms led to a flood of claims in the City of St. Louis in late 2005 (FY 2006) by plaintiffs’ lawyers eager to file lawsuits before the new laws went into effect.
The 2005 reforms significantly improved St. Louis’s reputation and, due to Missouri’s improved venue laws, about half as many personal injury claims are filed in the city in recent years compared to those immediately preceding the legislation. This year, however, the number of asbestos, other product liability, and general personal injury claims hit their post-reform high in St. Louis, according to court statistics. Fortunately, this growth is constrained by the state’s venue law, but it is still a reason for concern.
ATRA sources observe that the City of St. Louis is becoming known for permitting lawyers to combine multiple plaintiffs, sometimes from different states, in toxic tort and pharmaceutical cases. While there is typically some common element (i.e. they took the same drug), there is little else linking their claims. Plaintiffs’ lawyers reportedly find a St. Louis plaintiff to establish jurisdiction in the local court, then join other individuals from other areas to the suit. This prejudicial practice makes it difficult for businesses to mount a practical defense. The different facts and laws at issue make it challenging for a court to fairly consider the evidence. Important questions of causation may be eclipsed by sympathy when a single trial includes several injured individuals who may or may not have been harmed by the product at issue.
For example, lawyers who represent businesses in St. Louis courts are still wincing from a $358 million verdict delivered in 2011, the third highest in the state’s history. Indications are that jurors, who were told by the court to expect an eight-week trial, were exhausted by what were ultimately three months of expert testimony in a complex toxic tort case. The lawsuit was brought by residents who alleged that lead emissions from a smelter near their homes had caused or contributed to their children’s health problems. The case, known as Alexander v. Fluor, was originally filed as three separate lawsuits, but later combined into a single trial involving 16 separate personal injury cases. The verdict included $320 million in punitive damages – $112 million more than even the plaintiffs’ lawyers had sought. The Missouri Court of Appeals is now considering whether the trial court gave faulty jury instructions and allowed flawed expert testimony. Hundreds of similar lawsuits are expected to continue for years. According to a local attorney, the Fluor verdict was “a reality check to a lot of corporations facing liability in the region,” pushing them to settle rather than take high-stakes cases to trial.
The increasingly troublesome litigation climate in the City of St. Louis and Missouri more broadly is traceable, at least in part, to the Show Me State’s high court. As reported last year, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down a limit on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases, undermining the progress made since 2005. Most state courts, including those in neighboring Kansas, have found that, in order to protect access to affordable health care, legislatures may limit these subjective awards as long as recoveries for actual medical expenses and other objectively measureable economic losses are not affected. Efforts are underway to reinstate the cap by providing a statutory remedy for medical malpractice, rather than providing for recovery through common law. The Missouri Supreme Court had previously upheld application of the cap in wrongful death cases on that basis.