Deborah Giannecchini began using Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder for feminine hygiene as a teenager in California in 1967 and continued for 45 years until she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Giannecchini, who lives in Modesto, Calif., used the product only in that state. When her lawyers filed a lawsuit against J&J, a New Jersey-based company, they did so in a state court in St. Louis.
Hundreds of plaintiffs with product liability claims against J&J, Bayer, Pfizer, General Motors, and other big companies have been flocking to downtown St. Louis to a venue that over the past three years has developed a reputation for fast trials, favorable rulings, and big awards. Traditionally, Giannecchini’s claim would have been sent to federal court or filed in a local court in a jurisdiction where she or the defendant lives. Giannecchini and other plaintiffs are taking advantage of a quirk in Missouri law that allows out-of-state plaintiffs to combine their claims with those of local residents. As long as one plaintiff in the suit resides in St. Louis and another in the home state of the defendant, dozens of cases with similar claims can be combined before one Missouri judge.
Metropolitan St. Louis has two circuit courts. One is in the city; the other, in Clayton, Mo., handles countywide cases. The city court, with 18 general trial judges and 13 courtrooms, handles more than 300 jury trials annually. So far this year, three of the top six product defect verdicts in the U.S., totaling $173.5 million, have come out of the St. Louis court. Two of those were against J&J over an alleged link between talc and ovarian cancer. (It’s appealed the decisions.) The third was against Monsanto over allegations it dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into waterways that got into food supplies.
One suit against Pfizer, scheduled to go to trial next April, claims the company’s Lipitor medication caused a woman to develop diabetes. GM, named in thousands of claims nationwide and hundreds in St. Louis related to its faulty ignition switches, will face three trials in the city court next year.
The cases are heard more quickly and more fairly in the St. Louis court, plaintiffs’ lawyers say, giving their clients a better chance of winning. “The city has more judges, it’s a bigger venue, and you go to trial quicker,” says Steve Kherkher, a plaintiffs’ attorney who brought the case against Monsanto alleging a link between PCBs and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In May a jury awarded the plaintiffs in the suit $46.5 million. Cases in Missouri are more likely than those in many other jurisdictions to avoid pretrial dismissals, and the state’s appellate courts tend to uphold verdicts, says Houston plaintiffs’ lawyer Tommy Fibich.
The jury pool in the city is also a draw, says Merrie Jo Pitera, chief executive officer of Litigation Insights, a jury consulting firm in Overland Park, Kan., that works with big defendants. Liberal jurors are more sympathetic to plaintiffs, and, she says, “citizens of the city are more likely to be liberal.”
Winning a trial in state court in Missouri requires the support of 9 of 12 jurors; in federal court, the verdict has to be unanimous. The rules for submitting evidence are looser, too, with judges allowing expert testimony that wouldn’t be accepted in federal courts, says attorney Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association. “These plaintiffs are litigation tourists,” says Schwartz, who isn’t involved in any cases in St. Louis. “They have no connection with the city but think the court will treat them favorably.”
Plaintiffs face some restrictions. The cases can’t include more than 99 claims. Those with more must go to federal court. Yet the number of filings and trials will continue to rise as news of favorable verdicts spreads, Pitera says. “There have always been litigation hot spots,” she says. “If there’s a good verdict, people start flocking there.”
Other plaintiff havens have included Southern Illinois and certain counties in Texas. Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, says venues that acquire a reputation for being plaintiff-friendly are often reined in by state legislatures. He predicts lobbyists will try to get laws passed in Missouri limiting the ability of out-of-state plaintiffs to join a case. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently spurred passage of a bill in the state to alter rules on expert evidence. Missouri’s governor vetoed the bill, but a renewed push is planned. The efforts may eventually succeed but will just shift the cases to another jurisdiction, Tobias says: “It will get tightened up, and plaintiffs’ lawyers will move on.”
—With Tim Bross
The bottom line: A circuit court in St. Louis has drawn hundreds of out-of-state plaintiffs with product liability claims against big companies.