In 2021, lawyers and judges tried valiantly to dig through the pile of cases that have stacked up during the COVID-19 pandemic. That effort will certainly continue well into 2022.
For the second year in a row, Missouri Lawyers Media tracked an abnormally low number of cases valued at $1 million or more. In calendar year 2021, there were 45 such wins by plaintiffs, down from 64 in 2020. In 2019, the last full year of normal court operations, there were 74.
At the same time, it’s clear that lawsuits that languished on dockets for a year or more are now getting their day in court. Missouri Lawyers Media’s Verdicts & Settlements database records 57 plaintiffs’ or defense trials — 45 of which took place in the last half of the year. In comparison, there were just 22 trials in Missouri in 2020, fewer than half of which occurred after the pandemic began that spring. In 2019, our database recorded 92 trials.
Of course, these figures are based on cases submitted to Missouri Lawyers Media or those found through our independent reporting and don’t necessarily represent every case in 2021. But they indicate that courts are far busier than they were a year ago.
Judge Janet Sutton, who spent 18 years on the bench in Clay County before her appointment to the Court of Appeals Western District in December, said in a recent interview that the pandemic backup had caused her trial court to schedule jury trials “out beyond measure,” with parties unlikely to get a setting until late 2022 or early 2023 at the earliest.
“The whole year-plus of COVID, when we weren’t trying any jury trials, nothing really settled either. Everything was a stalemate,” Sutton said. “I guess nobody had to do anything when they knew they didn’t have to go to trial.”
Rural circuits returned to relatively normal operations long before those in urban areas did, so it’s no surprise that seven of the 17 $1 million-plus verdicts came from outside the Kansas City and St. Louis metropolitan areas.
Roger Johnson of Johnson, Vorhees & Martucci in Joplin and Brian Malkmus of the Malkmus Law Firm in Springfield seemed to be continually in trial in southern Missouri. Johnson won the single largest verdict of the year — a $34.1 million award in Greene County jury for a young boy who suffered brain damage at birth — against Malkmus in March, only to lose to him in a $1.6 million medical malpractice case in the same venue that May.
Two of the year’s largest verdicts stemmed from Linn County, a venue of fewer than 12,000 people in north-central Missouri. In September, Dirk Vandever of the Popham Law Firm in Kansas City won $9 million for a woman who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident — the fifth largest verdict of the year and a record for the county.
The following month, another Linn County jury found $3.5 million in damages for the family of a man killed in an accident at a local farm implement dealership, though the award was reduced to about $2 million due to comparative fault.
Prior to trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys, John Norton and Kathryn Spencer of Norton & Spencer in Kansas City, had reached out to Vandever for advice without realizing he’d just won a multimillion-dollar award in the same venue.
“We called him not knowing about his verdict, just to talk through some stuff,” Spencer said. “He said, ‘You’re not going to believe his.’ He had just been in trial the week before.”
Despite the lower overall number of cases in 2021, plenty of money changed hands. The combined value of the 10 largest plaintiffs’ wins of 2021 was nearly $1.03 billion. It’s the highest such figure since 2018, though most of that value came from the year’s top case — the $790 million settlement with the National Football League that ended a high-profile lawsuit over the Rams’ departure from St. Louis.
But other figures increased as well. The median million-dollar win in 2021 was $3 million, up from $2.5 million the year before. Seventeen of the million-dollar wins resulted from jury verdicts, versus just six in 2020. There also were 17 recorded defense wins in 2021 valued at $1 million or more in potential damages. There were just seven in 2020.