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Supreme Court declines equitable exception to joinder rule

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled July 28 that a lawsuit stemming from deficiencies in the construction of a senior living facility can proceed without including a subcontractor that is allegedly responsible for some of the work.

Woodco Inc., which served as the general contractor on the project, brought contract and tort claims against several companies involved in the project. The suit, however, did not name BSP Masonry LLC, a subcontractor that had done some of the allegedly deficient brick masonry work.

The defendants argued that the masonry company was a necessary party to the suit, and Jackson County Circuit Judge Jennifer Phillips agreed. In a unanimous ruling, however, the Supreme Court said the judge had abused her discretion. 

The case centered on Rule 52.04, which governs who must be joined to ensure a just adjudication of a case. Judge Mary R. Russell wrote for the court that BSP Masonry wasn’t a party to the contracts at issue and that, at best, it was jointly liable for the tort claims. Generally, plaintiffs are free to decide if they want to sue a particular tortfeasor.

In its brief, Haren & Laughlin Construction Co., one of the main defendants named in the suit, argued that the traditional joinder rules shouldn’t be followed in this case as a matter of “justice and equity.” It alleged that Woodco didn’t want to sue BSP because, as general contractor, it had failed to require the masonry company to maintain liability insurance coverage. 

“Rigidly applying the traditional rules,” the construction company wrote, would allow Woodco “to shield itself in this action from its own breach of contract and negligence in this regard.” Woodco responded that its reasons for not naming BSP were “irrelevant.”

Russell wrote that the presence of a “potentially judgment-proof nonparty does not result in a different analysis” and that “an equitable analysis is not part of determining when a person is to be joined if feasible.” She added that, if the defendants didn’t want to sue BSP themselves, they could always argue that the missing masonry company was the negligent party.

Judge W. Brent Powell, the brother-in-law of the trial judge in the case, was recused. Judge William W. Francis Jr. of Court of Appeals Southern District sat in his place.

The case is State ex rel. Woodco Inc. v. Phillips, SC98227.