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Missouri Law BlogLegal updates, news, and commentary from the attorneys of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC

Reports of the Death of Litigation Tourism in Missouri Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

March 1, 2017 | Angela Clark
On February 28, 2017, the Missouri Supreme Court issued its opinion in State ex rel. Norfolk Southern Railway Company v. Dolan (a/k/a “Parker,” for the plaintiff), Case No. SC95514, a proceeding for a writ of prohibition to prevent a trial court in St. Louis County, Missouri from exercising jurisdiction over a FELA personal injury case brought by an Indiana-resident plaintiff against his Virginia-resident employer for an injury sustained in Indiana.  The Supreme Court’s recognition that there is no basis beyond forum shopping for this case to survive in Missouri is laudable.

However, reports that hail this decision as the death-knell to “litigation tourism” are likely premature.  Parker does good things to curtail litigation tourism.  Among these are rejection of the notion that out-of-state defendants consent to personal jurisdiction by maintaining a registered agent in Missouri, and adoption of the Daimler and Goodyear cases regarding general jurisdiction.

The rejection of the doctrine of consent jurisdiction is a significant and much-needed development.  Missouri courts have long improperly conflated the ability to serve a defendant with obtaining personal jurisdiction over the defendant.  Although Parker cites only out-of-state cases for this proposition, as a practical matter Missouri practitioners have found that designation of a registered agent for service in Missouri has been universally viewed by the state’s trial courts as consent to personal jurisdiction.  The Missouri Supreme Court’s only prior opinion involving this issue ultimately declined to decide whether service upon an in-state registered agent was sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant.  See State ex rel. K-Mart Corp. v. Holliger, 986 S.W.2d 165, 167-68 (Mo. banc 1999).  However, Holliger was frequently cited for the proposition that a registered agent, plus “sufficient” contacts with the state, was sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction.  Id. at 168-69.

The lack of guidance afforded by Holliger has opened the door to some of the “litigation tourism” problem, allowing trial courts to rule that an out-of-state defendant has consented to personal jurisdiction by appointing a registered agent to accept service and registering to do business within the state.  See, e.g., Order dated Sept. 6, 2016, Kologenski v. The Adel Wiggins Group, et al., Case No. 1622-CC00427 (22nd Judicial Circ., City of St. Louis, Div. 29);  Gracey v. Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Case No. 4:15-CV-407 (CEJ), 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57990, 2015 WL 2066242 (E.D. Mo. May 4, 2015).  In Kologenski, a City of St. Louis trial court found that it was unnecessary to perform a “minimum contacts” constitutional due process analysis where the defendant maintains a registered agent in the state, because it has consented to personal jurisdiction.  Order at 3.

Parker holds that registration statutes, including designation of a registered agent for service, does not alone equal consent to personal jurisdiction over non-resident defendant companies.  “[T]he registration statute does not provide an independent basis for broadening Missouri’s personal jurisdiction to include suits unrelated to the corporation’s forum activities when the usual bases for general jurisdiction are not present.”  Slip. Op. at 18.

The explicit adoption of federal precedent regarding general jurisdiction, including Daimler and Goodyear, is also good, particularly the acknowledgement that these cases change Missouri law.  The attempt to quantify how much contact a defendant must have with a forum before that contact is “systematic and continuous,” however, is likely a mixed blessing for defendants. 

While Norfolk Southern can account for only approximately 2% of its track and employees within the state of Missouri, the mathematical formula approach in Parker will likely prove more frustrating for defendants whose Missouri contacts comprise a more significant portion of their overall business.  We can foresee considerable post-Parker litigation over the location of the mathematical threshold for “continuous and systematic” contacts, which is not consistent with the intent of Daimler and Goodyear.  Is the threshold crossed when a defendant’s Missouri contacts constitute a double-digit percentage of its overall business?  Is it greater than 50%?  Parker introduces what will likely prove to be an unwieldy math problem with little practical guidance as to where the line is drawn.  By contrast, Daimler and Goodyear signaled that the very notion of general jurisdiction was of such dubious and exceptionally limited application that it would virtually never apply, and this essential premise was not well-adopted in Parker.

Furthermore, Parker does not address the multi-plaintiff problem that is at the core of litigation tourism in Missouri.  In the “mini MDLs” proliferating in the state, particularly in the context of pharmaceutical, medical device, and asbestos cases, usually at least one plaintiff can establish personal jurisdiction over the defendants.  Typically, a Missouri resident who sustained injury in Missouri is included, and who could establish jurisdiction under the long-arm statute for commission of a tort in the state or conducting business in the state.

The problem is allowing other non-resident plaintiffs to bootstrap their unrelated claims.  Parker helps when there is a single forum-shopping plaintiff, but does not clearly address the problem of “pendent” or “supplemental” personal jurisdiction.  The argument that numerous unrelated out-of-state plaintiffs may be joined under Missouri’s Rule 52.05 with one plaintiff who properly asserts personal jurisdiction is a type of “pendent” or “supplemental” theory of specific personal jurisdiction.  See, e.g., Liggins v. Abbvie Inc. (In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig.), 164 F. Supp. 3d 1040, 1048 (N.D. Ill. 2016). 

Federal courts have plainly held that “[t]here is no such thing as supplemental specific personal jurisdiction; if separate claims are pled, specific personal jurisdiction must independently exist for each claim and the existence of personal jurisdiction for one claim will not provide the basis for another claim.”  Seiferth v. Helicopteros Atuneros, Inc., 472 F.3d 266, 275 n.6 (5th Cir. 2006).  “Permitting the legitimate exercise of specific jurisdiction over one claim to justify the exercise of specific jurisdiction over a different claim that does not arise out of or relate to the defendant’s forum contacts [] violate[s] the Due Process Clause.”  Id. 

This is the crux of the problem with “litigation tourism” in Missouri.  Because Parker is a single plaintiff case, the pernicious misapplication of the law evidenced by the “supplemental personal jurisdiction” fallacy remains untested in Missouri.  While it appears likely that the Missouri Supreme Court would be receptive to ruling that the theory is not viable, it has not done so in Parker.  Multi-plaintiff litigation tourism likely lives to fight another day.
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