JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – There’s no denying the damning titles given to Missouri in the past few years in regard to the state’s legal environment: the “Show-Me Your Lawsuits State”, the “Sue Me State”, or the “judicial hellhole.”
None have a very good connotation, and it’s one that Missouri lawmakers have been looking to change.
In 2017, legislators put forward a number of tort reform measures in hopes of maybe addressing the issues and possibly rebranding the state’s litigation environment.
Republicans managed to push a few reform measures across the finish line during the last legislative session, including the implementation of the Daubert standard for expert witnesses, insurance bad faith reform, and the collateral source rule.
But still a number of issues remain on the to-do list, including arbitration, asbestos, merchandising practices and more. But the one that may be the most contentious item is that of venue and joinder.
SB 546, sponsored by Sen. Brian Munzlinger, would allow two or more plaintiffs to be joined in a single action only if each can establish the proper venue and personal jurisdiction individually.
Supporters of the bill say it would reduce costs and make Missouri’s courts more efficient and accessible, focusing on in-state cases, preventing “venue shopping” and “litigation tourism.” They contend that it creates a harmful business environment and scares away potential companies looking to make their home in Missouri.
“In 2017, there were 10,666 plaintiffs in St. Louis City and there were 9,983 joined in those suits from out-of-state – really no tie to the actual case that was brought forward,” Munzlinger stated, saying that only a small percentage of cases belonged in those courts, thus “clogging the court systems.”
But opponents of the bill say it’s simply an attempt by businesses and companies from being held accountable in the courts, simply by making it harder for plaintiffs with similar claims to work together and share their resources in a joined case.
Sen. John Rizzo said that the legislation would impede a person’s given right to have their day in court.
“We are challenging the pillars of democracy and what this country was built on,” he said.
“I just believe that the venue and joinder laws in the state are pretty good, and any changes must be for special interests… It seems to me that the Missouri Chamber of Commerce is wanting to protect all of its members from every lawsuit that they can, at the expense of the citizens,” Sen. Rob Schaaf said. “And we really should stop it.”
“This is a bill in which we are not trying to stop people from getting a fair trial,” Sen. Brian Munzlinger says. “There’s been an abuse of the venue statute and this will end that abuse.
“The courts have allowed that to happen, but it is within the power of the legislature to fix it.”
While debating the merits of the bill, senators referenced the fact that the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) had listed St. Louis as the number one judicial hellhole. However, following the passage of several bills in the previous year, the ATRA had dropped St. Louis to number three on the list. It’s also worth noting that the ATRA is backing the bill, with a representative from the ATRA testifying in support of the bill during a January committee hearing.
“Nobody claims that where we are is OK,” Sen. Caleb Rowden said before presenting an amendment to the bill.
His amendment would enable a path for plaintiffs whose claim has been found to have no venue may proceed in such venue where such claim was dismissed without prejudice only when the court finds that the claim:
(1) Was filed in the Missouri court within the statute of limitations applicable to the claim;
(2) Has no proper venue in the state of Missouri;
(3) Cannot be refiled in the proper state because of said state’s lack of savings statute or similar law.
Sen. Scott Sifton, one of the practicing lawyers of the body, rose to address a number of concerns he had with the legislation, saying that he was “gravely concerned” with about 70 percent of the bill’s language.
“Why do we want 68 lawsuits instead of one? Because that’s what your bill does,” Sifton asked Munzlinger. “Why do we want to annihilate joinder?”
As Sifton pointed out, if jurisdiction or venue could not be established in a particular Missouri county, then it would by default land in Cole County.
“Why?” Sifton asked. “My biggest issue is that we are mangling state plaintiff joinder.’
“We’re not aiming to take anyone out of the court system,” Munzlinger said.
“Well, it’s going to,” Sifton replied.
But after more than four hours in the chamber, with Sens. Schaaf and Sifton holding the floor, Munzlinger returned to ask that the bill be laid over.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.