JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Legal Newsline) - The Missouri Supreme Court this week upheld a circuit court’s judgment in a failure-to-warn lawsuit brought against the maker of an anti-epileptic drug, including an award of nearly $40 million in damages.

The state’s high court, in its en banc opinion issued Tuesday, affirmed the City of St. Louis Circuit Court’s judgment.

The Supreme Court said the defendant, Abbott Laboratories Inc., received a fair trial.

Abbott appealed the circuit court’s judgment awarding plaintiff Maddison Schmidt $15 million in compensatory damages and $23 million in punitive damages for her personal injury claim.

Abbott argued the lower court erred in overruling its pretrial motion to transfer venue; its pretrial motion to sever Schmidt’s claim from other plaintiffs’ claims; its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict on Schmidt’s failure-to-warn claim; and its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict on Schmidt’s demand for punitive damages.

“Even assuming the circuit court erred by either failing to transfer venue or failing to sever the claims, an error does not warrant reversal on appeal unless the error results in prejudice,” Judge W. Brent Powell wrote for the court.

Powell pointed to Rule 84.13(b), which provides: “No appellate court shall reverse any judgment unless it finds that error was committed by the trial court against the appellant materially affecting the merits of the action.”

“Despite this clear mandate of Rule 84.13(b), Abbott insists it is not required to show prejudice,” the judge wrote in the court’s nine-page opinion.

He continued, “While maintaining its position that prejudice is not required, Abbott also argues it was prejudiced by the circuit court’s failure to transfer venue or sever the claims because the City of St. Louis is a more favorable venue to plaintiffs than St. Louis County. Essentially, Abbott argues the City of St. Louis is biased in general but fails to point to any specific event or action in the case or trial to support this generality.

“Abbott fails to identify any particular ruling by the circuit court suggesting bias or any particular juror who should have been disqualified for bias. This claim of prejudice will not suffice.”

The high court said while Abbott may have preferred a trial in St. Louis County, it can’t establish the trial in the City of St. Louis was unfair.

“This Court declines to hold Abbott was prejudiced simply because a fair judge and jury in the City of St. Louis rendered the judgment and verdict rather than a fair judge and jury in St. Louis County,” Powell wrote.

Schmidt, who was born and resides in Minnesota, was born with spina bifida and other birth defects. Her mother ingested Depakote, an anti-epileptic drug manufactured and marketed by Abbott, while Schmidt was in utero. Her mother ingested the Depakote in Minnesota. Abbott’s company headquarters are in Illinois.

Despite a lack of connection to Missouri, Schmidt joined with four Missouri plaintiffs and 19 other non-Missouri plaintiffs to file a single action against Abbott in the City of St. Louis Circuit Court. Each plaintiff alleged birth defects from in utero exposure to Depakote and sought both compensatory and punitive damages.

Abbott moved to sever the plaintiffs’ individual claims, arguing they should not have been joined together in a single action. The company also moved to transfer the non-Missouri plaintiffs’ claims to the St. Louis County Circuit Court, which Abbott argued was the proper venue for these plaintiffs.

After the circuit court overruled Abbott’s motions, Abbott raised its venue and joinder arguments in a petition for a writ of mandamus or, alternatively, a writ of prohibition. Both the state appeals court and state Supreme Court denied Abbott’s writ petition without opinion.

The circuit court then ordered each side to nominate plaintiffs for separate, individual trials, though all the plaintiffs’ claims remained joined in one action.

Schmidt was nominated by the plaintiffs’ counsel, and a jury trial was held solely on Schmidt’s claims without severing the other plaintiffs’ claim.

Schmidt advanced a failure-to-warn theory contending Depakote’s label did not adequately warn of the risk of birth defects posed by the drug.

At the close of Schmidt’s evidence and at the close of all evidence, Abbott moved for a directed verdict on both Schmidt’s failure-to-warn claim and her demand for punitive damages. The circuit court overruled Abbott’s motions.

The jury found in Schmidt’s favor and awarded her $15 million in compensatory damages and $23 million in punitive damages.

Abbott then moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, alternatively, a new trial, and renewed the arguments it made for a directed verdict, as well as its venue and joinder arguments.

The circuit court overruled Abbott’s motion and entered judgment in accordance with the jury’s verdict.

Abbott appealed and the appeals court transferred the case to the state Supreme Court.

The high court, in its ruling this week, also found that Abbott’s warning on its Depakote label was not complete and accurate, and therefore “did not adequately warn.”

The evidence also showed, the court said, that Abbott was motivated by profits and “deliberately disregarded” the safety of Depakote users.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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