JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling regarding jurisdiction that looks like a win for the business community doesn’t negate the need for legislation reforming the way the state’s courts settle venue and joinder matters, civil justice reform advocates say.
The opinion, issued Feb. 28, dismissed personal injury claims brought against Norfolk Southern Railway Co. because the issue occurred in Indiana to a resident of Indiana, involving a Virginia company.
The ruling offers some clarity on jurisdiction rules in Missouri—as in, courts don’t have jurisdiction over out-of-state claims—but it doesn’t completely settle the issue that’s been so controversial in the state, Phil Goldberg, director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Civil Justice, told the St. Louis Record.
On behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, Goldberg testified before the Missouri House of Representatives Special Committee on Litigation Reform, supporting a suite of bills that tackle misapplication of venue and jurisdiction rules in Missouri. Venue and jurisdiction refers to the court in which a claim can be heard—from the right state to the right county within the state.
“If someone has been wrongfully injured and they want to bring a lawsuit, they should be able to do so—but only in the place that makes sense for that lawsuit,” Goldberg said.
Part of the problem is fraudulent joinders. Joinder refers to the occasion when multiple parties join a lawsuit as co-plaintiffs or co-defendants. In Missouri, frustrations arise when parties are allowed to join a case without meeting jurisdiction requirements. A lawsuit may originate with a plaintiff who meets proper jurisdiction requirements, but then out-of-state plaintiffs attach their claims in a joinder. Proposed rule changes address that issue.
“We think joinder was never meant to get around venue and jurisdiction laws,” Goldberg said. “Venue laws and jurisdiction laws should be clear that if you’re not from Missouri and you don’t have venue or jurisdiction in Missouri, you don’t get to bring your lawsuit in Missouri.”
Supreme Court opinion
Russel Parker, an Indiana resident, sued Norfolk Southern Railway Co. in St. Louis County, alleging he suffered cumulative trauma injury during his years working for the corporation. Because Norfolk Southern registers with Missouri each year, in compliance with the state’s foreign business registration statutes, Parker claimed the company gave implied consent to general jurisdiction in Missouri.
But the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that railway tracks in Missouri and foreign business registration is not enough to satisfy jurisdiction requirements.
“A plaintiff may bring an action in Missouri on a cause of action unrelated to a corporation’s activities if the corporation is incorporated in Missouri, has its principal place of business in Missouri, or in the exceptional case when its contacts with Missouri are so extensive and all-encompassing that Missouri, in effect, becomes another home state,” the opinion stated. “None of these requirements is met here.”
This year, St. Louis tops the list as the No. 1 “Judicial Hellhole”—a designation the American Tort Reform Association gives jurisdictions where it sees systemic abuse of the civil justice system. Missouri’s “pliable” venue laws play a part in its prominence on the list.
“Missouri has become America’s courtroom,” Goldberg told legislators, according to a Progressive Policy Institute blog post summarizing his appearance. “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.”
Advocates of reform say loose venue and jurisdiction rules attract a flood of litigation to Missouri courts—seen as pro-plaintiffs arenas. Such forum-shopping is easy when laws let claims be brought even when there’s no link between the court and the plaintiff or defendant.
In its 2017 Judicial Hellholes report, ATRA says current rules have “trapped” cases against Johnson & Johnson in St. Louis because the law allows a lawsuit to be filed in any county as long as one (of many) claimants resided there when the injury occurred. So far, four such lawsuits consolidated in the St. Louis court have gone to a jury trial. Three verdicts were in favor of the plaintiff, awarding $197 million total. The fourth was decided in favor of the defendants.
Numerous bills seeking to rectify the state’s venue- and jurisdiction-related rules are making headway in the Missouri State Legislature this session. Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, R-Odessa, introduced several bills to the House Special Committee on Litigation Reform, all with a similar aim. In two, he suggests rewriting Supreme Court rules to require both matters to be established independently.
House Bill 462 would prevent someone from intervening in a lawsuit if jurisdiction and venue are not established independently. The bill passed the House on March 9 with 99 in favor and 48 against and was sent to the Senate.
House Bill 463 would amend Supreme Court rules to say neither joinder nor intervention establishes jurisdiction or venue if those two aspects aren’t established independently. That bill awaits action on the House floor.
A third bill, House Bill 461, would change the rules to sever parties that are deemed “misjoined” due to venue and jurisdiction. The amendment states that two or more plaintiffs can be joined in a single action only if each party could have separately filed in the same venue. House Bill 460, also introduced by Kolkmeyer, would codify the same amendments to Missouri statutes governing civil proceedings.
“Any plaintiff that cannot establish proper venue independent of the claims of any other plaintiff shall be deemed misjoined,” the bill states. “If the plaintiff was first injured outside of the state of Missouri, two or more defendants may be joined in a single action if the plaintiff can establish proper venue against each defendant individually, and if proper venue cannot be established against any such defendant individually, that defendant shall be deemed misjoined.”
Misjoined parties would be disconnected from the lawsuit and transferred to the correct venue in Missouri, if it exists. If it doesn’t, the claims would be dismissed without prejudice. The bill was sent to the Senate Government Reform Committee on March 13.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, these additional steps to tighten these rules are important, Goldberg said. They’ll clarify that out-of-state claims still must have some real connection to Missouri in order to be heard there.
“The local plaintiff that has proper venue and jurisdiction over that claim may be able to proceed in St. Louis courts,” he said. “But all the out-of-state claimants should have their cases heard in their proper jurisdictions.”