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Why St. Louis was named a ‘judicial hellhole’

Maria Altman Mar 6, 2017
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The American Tort Reform Association says Missouri courts make it too easy for people to sue corporations. Above, the Civil Courts building in St. Louis.
Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio

Johnson & Johnson, the maker of health and beauty products, won a verdict Friday in St. Louis rejecting a plaintiff’s claim that her ovarian cancer was linked to her use of talcum powder. 

But the company lost three similar lawsuits last year with St. Louis juries awarding nearly $200 million in damages.

That has made the city a target for reforms that would make it harder for people to sue companies in the state. A business-friendly group, the American Tort Reform Association, recently put St. Louis at the top of its annual “Judicial Hellhole” list. The group said Missouri courts make it too easy for people to file lawsuits against corporations.

Yet plaintiffs’ attorney Jim Onder, whose law firm led all four suits against Johnson & Johnson, said the hellhole designation is the result of the recent large verdicts, not because of any problems with Missouri’s judicial system.

“It has nothing to do with the law, the judges, the juries,” Onder said. “They’ve ignored that big verdicts are a function of egregious, horrible conduct and disregard of human life,” he said.

The American Tort Reform Association counters that St. Louis has been on its watch list for several years. ATRA spokesman Darren McKinney said plaintiffs’ attorneys in Missouri are able to game the system.

“What’s going on in Missouri is not the case of a couple of large but otherwise just verdicts,” he said. “It’s a system where a lax standard of expert evidence, where lax venue laws let out-of-state plaintiffs shop their cases to friendly St. Louis judges.”

McKinney said Missouri should raise the bar on who can be considered an expert witness by adopting the Daubert standard used by the federal courts. It allows hearings to be held on whether someone is qualified to give expert testimony.

Missouri’s venue law also allows people from out of state to join other plaintiffs who allege they are victims — as long as they bundle their suit with a local plaintiff. In the Johnson & Johnson cases, for instance, the four lead plaintiffs were all from other states. Up to 99 people can sue as a group, and that can cut down on legal costs, but McKinney said it’s not fair.

“They ought to be bringing their cases where they live,” he said.

Missouri’s new Republican governor, Eric Greitens, agrees. He talked specifically about the judicial hellhole ranking in his first State of the State address. He said Missouri’s civil judicial system is hurting the state’s ability to attract businesses.

“Too long in this state, trial lawyers have picked our people’s pockets, and it’s time to do different,” Greitens said during the speech.

Missouri’s Republican-led House and Senate have eagerly taken up the governor’s suggestions. Legislators have introduced bills to change the state’s venue rule and toughen expert witness standards. 

But others say Missouri’s current system is fair. Thomas Stewart, a law professor at St. Louis University who specializes in products liability, medical negligence and class action litigation, said product-liability cases are filed in St. Louis because the circuit’s judges are known for their expertise and efficiency. And he said juries in St. Louis don’t always decide for the plaintiffs, as the latest Johnson & Johnson verdict demonstrated.  

“St. Louis litigated tobacco cases, and those tobacco cases resulted in defense verdicts,” Stewart said. “Why didn’t we get the judicial hellhole designation when that happened?”

Stewart said the reforms being proposed will likely mean additional hurdles for those who may have been harmed by a company’s product. Meanwhile, two more cases against Johnson & Johnson are set for trial in St. Louis in coming months.

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