In State ex rel. Johnson & Johnson v. The Honorable Rex M. Burlison, dozens of plaintiffs sought to bring their claims against Johnson & Johnson in the City of St. Louis, Missouri even though they were not residents of the city. Missouri’s venue and joinder statutes have frequently been used in mass tort cases to join claims of dozens of plaintiffs that would generally not belong in St. Louis City, so long as one Plaintiff has claims that are appropriately filed in St. Louis City. In the Johnson & Johnson case, the Missouri Supreme Court put a halt to this practice by issuing an opinion that should stop nonresident plaintiffs from bringing unrelated claims in the City of St. Louis. The Supreme Court held that legitimate but separate claims cannot be used to extend venue to a county when, without joinder, venue in that county would not be proper for each claim.
In the Johnson & Johnson case, one St. Louis City resident filed an action, along with dozens of Plaintiffs from other states, as well as residents from other counties in Missouri, including a resident of St. Louis County. Specifically, at issue on appeal was whether the claims of the St. Louis County Plaintiff were properly filed in St. Louis City. The Court stated: “The central issue in this case is whether permissive joinder of separate claims may extend venue to a county when, absent joinder, venue in that county would not otherwise be proper for each claim. It cannot and does not. This is evidenced not only by our Court's rules but also nearly 40 years of this Court's precedent.”
On February 27, 2019, two weeks after the opinion was issued by the Missouri Supreme Court, the Missouri Senate gave first round approval to a revised joinder bill, SB7, which expressly adopts the holding of State ex rel. Johnson & Johnson v. Burlison, as it relates to the analysis of joiner and venue. Proponents of the bill suggest that far too little mass tort plaintiffs have a connection to the City of St. Louis, where a large number of mass tort cases are filed, and that plaintiffs have abused the current joinder rules for what is perceived to be a more favorable jurisdiction then their own county of residence. The final vote on the bill is yet to come.
Recent Court decisions on personal jurisdiction have limited the ability of non-residents to bring suit in Missouri. The Supreme Court’s latest decision, coupled with the proposed legislation, seeks to close another loophole that has allowed the joinder of claims that would not otherwise belong in St. Louis City. The proposed bill also incorporates the holdings of recent case law, which requires that personal jurisdiction over each defendant, independent of each other defendant must exist. Finally, the proposed bill grandfathers in certain plaintiffs who may not be properly venued initially but are at the eve of trial.
The result this decision and pending legislation will have on other more recent talc verdicts in St. Louis City remains to be seen, but, given the non-resident plaintiffs involved in those cases, additional reversals may be imminent. Future litigants seeking to file mass tort cases in St. Louis City will also have additional obstacles to overcome without a relationship with or connection to St. Louis City.