The 2018-2019 ATRF Judicial Hellholes Report is out, and, surprise, surprise, the “Show Me Your Lawsuit” state, specifically the City of St. Louis, landed fourth on the list—only behind California, Florida, and New York City. While it must be noted that St. Louis has moved down in the ATRF Judicial Hellhole rankings (St. Louis was ranked No. 3 in 2017-2018 and No. 1 in 2016-2017), St. Louis is still considered by many to be one of the most plaintiff-friendly courts in the nation, making it an inhospitable venue for corporate defendants, or any defendants for that matter. While the term “hellhole” may be a bit over the top, defense counsel must nonetheless be wary of this venue and advise their clients accordingly. And in-house counsel should pay particular heed when drafting jurisdiction and venue clauses in corporate agreements.
There was initial optimism from 2017 that political changes in the executive branch would aid business interests and result in certain statutory reforms. The ATRF Report bursts that balloon, reporting that optimism “quickly evaporated in 2018 as massive verdicts, blatant forum shopping, and legislative ineptitude plagued the ‘Show Me Your Lawsuit’ state.”
The ATRF Report also attributes St. Louis’ inability to become a more balanced venue to its “loose” application of procedural rules, and an unwillingness to consistently follow Missouri appellate court and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, especially as it applies to a court’s exercise of jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. A combination of these two elements is what generally encourages forum shopping and out-of-state plaintiffs to seek out this jurisdiction, which gained national recognition in recent substantial toxic exposure verdicts.
Looking ahead to the 2019 Missouri General Assembly legislative session, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Daniel P. Mehan, recently vowed to address this state’s litigious climate which he describes as a “black eye for Missouri.” He intends to push for new legislation to make Missouri’s courtrooms more balanced when the Missouri General Assembly convenes for their legislative session in January 2019. More recently, the Missouri Chamber Board of Directors has approved the organization’s 2019 Legislative Agenda which include several modifications that are aimed specifically at curtailing Missouri’s Judicial Hellhole status. These reforms contain measures that would:
1. Clarify venue and joinder laws in an effort to curb venue/forum shopping;
2. Strengthen the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act to reduce frivolous class action lawsuits;
3. Increase transparency in toxic exposure litigation to curtail fraudulent claims and ensure compensation for future claimants;
4. Strengthen Missouri’s employment arbitration climate in an effort to avoid costly litigation and resolve disputes rapidly;
5. Establish a statute of repose to stop new regulations from opening additional paths to litigation; and
6. Reforming the statutes regarding punitive damages to clarify the standard and define when an employer can be held liable for such damages.
Whether or not all of these reforms will make it to committee is still yet to be determined, especially since several of these reforms were attempted in 2018 but failed. Nonetheless, 2019 is a new year!