By Taryn Phaneuf
ST. LOUIS — St. Louis is the fourth-most popular court system for asbestos lawsuits, with several factors earning the city a designation as a maturing jurisdiction, according to a recent analysis of 2016 filings by KCIC, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm.
The analysis reports that 311 cases were filed in St. Louis in 2016, putting it just behind New York, with 368 filings; Baltimore, with 414 filings; and Madison County, with 1,299 filings. In total, 4,637 asbestos-related lawsuits were filed in 2016, down from 5,333 in 2015 and 5,551 in 2014. Despite fewer filings, asbestos litigation continues to consolidate among law firms and concentrate in jurisdictions. Nearly three-quarters of the total number of filings were found in just 10 jurisdictions.
St. Louis has long been a magnet for asbestos litigation because of its proximity to jurisdictions in Illinois. Behind Madison County, two other Illinois counties, St. Clair and Cook, rank high among jurisdictions that see asbestos claims filed each year.
But geography isn’t the only factor that makes St. Louis courts attractive to plaintiffs' firms specializing in asbestos litigation, Brian Bunten, general counsel with the Missouri Chamber of Commerce & Industry, told the St. Louis Record.
“Missouri also has lax expert witness testimony standards compared to most other states, attracting a certain amount of forum shopping by enterprising plaintiffs' attorneys,” Bunten said. “St. Louis city courts have also interpreted the state’s venue and joinder laws in a way that allows out-of-state plaintiffs to sue out-of-state defendants in Missouri. But superseding all of these factors is St. Louis city’s reputation for plaintiff-friendly judgments, which would logically result in an increased number of filings within the circuit.”
A maturing jurisdiction
Over the past three years, the same plaintiffs' firms that dominate courts in Madison County have increasingly added filings in St. Louis.
These trends indicate that St. Louis is a maturing jurisdiction, KCIC reported. Maturing jurisdictions rank highest in the number filings, see fewer plaintiffs' firms representing more claims and show a concentration of cases involving a specific disease. St. Louis saw 75 more lawsuits filed in 2016, compared to the previous year. The 311 filings were dominated by lung cancer allegations and led by two national plaintiffs firms, according to KCIC. Madison County also fits the description.
Mesothelioma remains the most-cited allegation, with 2,296 filings in 2016, followed by lung cancer with 1,189. Together they account for 75 percent of all asbestos litigation filings. In 2016, St. Louis saw 119 claims with mesothelioma allegations. Another 185 claims included allegations of lung cancer.
The concentration of lung cancer allegations in St. Louis is linked to activity by two law firms: Gori Julian & Associates, which added 50 claims with lung cancer allegations in 2016, and Napoli Shkolnik, which added 14 lung cancer filings. Napoli has had a diminishing presence in St. Louis since 2014, when it filed 91 of 168 lung cancer claims here. In 2015, they filed just 12. In 2016, Napoli filed 25 in St. Louis.
Gori, the most active plaintiffs' firm in asbestos litigation with 541 filings in 2016, has increased its lung cancer filings in St. Louis each year since 2014.
In 2014, Gori filed 29 of 168 such cases cases. Sixty percent of lung cancer filings, or 77 claims, in St. Louis were brought by the firm in 2015. In 2016, it filed 111 claims. In all, Gori holds more than 20 percent of all asbestos filings – a 5 percent increase since 2014.
Bunten said the trends that make St. Louis a maturing jurisdiction do not look good.
“This is extremely alarming and sends the message to business nationwide that Missouri is not a favorable place to defend a lawsuit,” he said.
Turning to the Legislature
Filings by out-of-state plaintiffs has been an often-discussed problem in asbestos litigation. When the American Tort Reform Association ranked St. Louis at the top of its 2017 list of “judicial hellholes,” it specifically cited the frequency with which out-of-state residents file asbestos and other class-action claims in St. Louis Circuit Court.
KCIC examined filings data to determine the extent to which out-of-state residents account for asbestos litigation in the top jurisdictions.
“For the top five jurisdictions, the percentage of plaintiffs filing in those jurisdictions who also reside in those states has remained relatively consistent for the past three years,” the report said. “Unsurprisingly, we find that Madison County has an overwhelmingly high percentage of out-of-state residents, roughly 83 percent. Moreover, the percentage of Illinois residents filing in Madison County has actually declined by approximately 3 percent from 2014 to 2016.”
While the report doesn’t list the rate at which out-of-state residents file in St. Louis, law firm Gori Julian & Associates, which has increased filings here, reportedly is responsible for a very high rate of out-of-state filings in Madison County, accounting for 90 percent of its filings in that jurisdiction.
The Missouri Chamber wants to see the state address the factors that make it so attractive to asbestos litigators. Joining the asbestos litigation bills before the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate, legislators are considering changes to venue and jurisdiction rules to prevent people with no legal connection to the state who sue companies with no legal connection to the state from clogging dockets.
“Missouri taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for so many out-of-state plaintiffs’ jurisprudence,” Bunten said.