A Steal for Trial Attorneys: Venue shopping reform remains a top priority for businesses and lawmakers
The busy holiday shopping season may now be behind us, but Missouri courtrooms are bracing for another year of brisk business.
For years, trial lawyers have swarmed into plaintiff-friendly Missouri courts in search of big payouts. Commonly called venue shopping or forum shopping, this practice is flooding our Missouri taxpayer-funded judicial system with thousands of out-of-state lawsuits.
“‘Venue’ refers to the location where a lawsuit is filed. Missouri has become a magnet for lawsuits that have no logical connection to the state,” explained Mark Behrens, co-chair of the Public Policy Practice Group for Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a corporate defense law firm. “Forum-shopping plaintiff lawyers from around the country are flocking to Missouri, particularly the city of St. Louis, because they believe it gives them a litigation advantage.”
Venue shopping — which is enabled by current Missouri statutes and case law — is leading to big losses in state revenue. It’s also hurting our state’s business-friendly reputation and making it harder to attract jobs and investment.
“Missouri’s legal climate is widely viewed as perhaps the worst aspect of doing business in the state,” said Behrens. “The city of St. Louis has been labeled a ‘Judicial Hellhole’ by the American Tort Reform Foundation because the scales of justice are perceived to be tilted against job creators.”
Unfriendly courts, big paydays
Specifically, the city of St. Louis is ranked as the nation’s fourth-worst Judicial Hellhole. St. Louis courts are infamous for awarding massive judgments to trial attorneys.
Case in point: This year a St. Louis jury awarded a nearly $4.7 billion verdict to 22 plaintiffs who alleged that Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder caused cancer. Of those 22 plaintiffs, only five had any connection to Missouri.
In light of lawsuits like this, it’s no wonder the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s most recent report ranks Missouri as second-worst in the U.S. for overall legal climate and fairness.
But besides hurting our state’s competitiveness for business expansion and site selection, this puts an extreme financial burden on Missourians.
“Lawsuit abuse results in a ‘tort tax’ that adds to the cost of goods and services for all Missourians. Everyone pays more while personal injury lawyers get richer,” said Behrens.
In fact, a 2018 study conducted by the Perryman Group found that our flawed legal system costs the Missouri economy $1.6 billion every year and loses us 26,500 jobs. Furthermore, our judicial climate reduces state revenue by $127.1 million annually. The negative impact doesn’t just hit at the state level —local governments lose $108.5 million in revenue a year.
“Missouri’s judicial resources should be reserved for Missourians. Missouri taxpayers do not want to see their taxes spent funding a court system for nonresidents,” Behrens said. “Missourians also should not have to take time away from work to serve on juries or have their own cases delayed for lawsuits that logically belong in other forums.”
Follow the money
One concerning symptom of the underlying problem is that trial lawyers are going on massive TV advertisement spending sprees.
A recent study by the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) showed that Missouri television viewers see more legal ads than almost anywhere else in the country. Beyond just being annoying to sit through, there is concern that the vast numbers of these one-sided commercials are tainting the jury pools in these areas against businesses.
The ads are even influencing some viewers to stop using certain important medications.
“These ads from plaintiffs’ attorneys, while many times irritating, can also have detrimental effects,” said ATRA President Tiger Joyce. “The ads will often claim a certain prescription or medical device can cause harm, and without consulting a doctor, consumers will sometimes stop use due to the false alarm created by unfounded advertisements.”
The big spending doesn’t stop there. Just how desperate are trial lawyers to continue to monopolize their favorite courtrooms? They have poured more than $7.5 million into political campaigns since 2014 to help keep Missouri a lucrative destination. And in Missouri’s 2018 elections, they spent more than $350,000 in support of candidates against legal climate reform.
On the bright side, this issue is already on several lawmakers’ radars for the 2019 legislative session.
House Speaker Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Republican from Springfield, has said venue reform will be one of the top priorities in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Sen. Caleb Rowden, a Republican from Columbia, said he expects action on venue reform in the Missouri Senate as well.
“Many of us have been frustrated and disappointed that we haven’t been able to pass a venue reform bill in the last couple of years. However, many of the things that fell ahead of it on the priority list have been passed into law and are no longer obstacles or leverage points for opponents,” said Rowden. “I would say within our Republican caucus, passing venue reform is our top priority.”
There is one simple thing business leaders can do to make their voices heard as we head into session.
“[They should] make sure their legislators know how they feel and the impact these tort reform bills have on their business,” Rowden said. “We hear from trial attorneys and folks on that side of the issue more loudly and more often, so getting feedback on the side that would like to see these reforms helps give legislators the confidence they need to move forward.”
That’s where the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry has stepped in to lead the charge. As the state’s largest business association, the Missouri Chamber is advocating for the statute changes needed to restore fairness to our court system.
“It should be troubling to every Missourian that our state is losing hundreds of millions of dollars every additional month we delay,” said Missouri Chamber President and CEO Daniel P. Mehan. “The business community wants this to end. Fixing our unfair legal climate will be the top item on our legislative agenda in 2019.”