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Supreme Court sorts through venue dispute in Monsanto cases

Scott Lauck//May 10, 2023

Supreme Court sorts through venue dispute in Monsanto cases

Scott Lauck//May 10, 2023

The fight over mass tort cases in St. Louis featuring out-of-state plaintiffs has taken a turn that former President Bill Clinton might appreciate.

The Missouri Supreme Court on May 10 heard arguments stemming from a series of claims alleging that Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Six plaintiffs who live outside of Missouri and claim to have been injured in other states sued Monsanto in St. Louis Circuit Court in five separate cases.

Their claims were consolidated for trial, but Monsanto filed a writ with the Supreme Court arguing that the plaintiffs’ cases don’t belong in St. Louis. Instead, it says, they must be transferred to neighboring St. Louis County, where the current iteration of the company has its registered agent.

The plaintiffs, however, say venue is determined at the time of the injury. Monsanto’s predecessor previously was based in the city of St. Louis, so the plaintiffs say the case properly belongs in the city.

The argument hinges on the complex interplay between different parts of Missouri’s venue statute, which was made stricter under a 2005 overhaul of the state’s tort laws. Under that law, plaintiffs who were injured outside the state of Missouri and are suing a corporation must file their suit in the county where the defendant corporation’s registered agent “is located.”

K. Lee Marshall of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, who represented Monsanto, argued that lawmakers used the present tense for a reason.

“This is a creative new theory to once again attempt to evade the legislature’s clear intent,” he said.

But elsewhere, the statute says venue is determined as of “the date the plaintiff was first injured.” Jim Layton of Tueth Keeney Cooper Mohan & Jackstadt, who argued for the plaintiffs, argued that the statute doesn’t define what timeframe ‘is’ is referring to: the time of filing, the time the lawsuit is served or some other marker. That could allow a defendant that expects to be sued to move its agent to a more favorable forum at the last minute.

“’Is’: It’s a small word that can’t bear the weight that Monsanto is giving it,” Layton said.

The case also presents several other wrinkles, including whether it was proper to consolidate the claims of plaintiffs who allege different injuries from different times and places. Monsanto also argues that some of the claims must be moved to St. Louis County because the trial judge missed a deadline to overrule the company’s request for a transfer of venue.

In a statement issued after the argument, Monsanto urged the court to rule that St. Louis County is the appropriate venue for the case and that the consolidation of several cases into one multi-plaintiff trial was improper.

“None of the six plaintiffs is a resident of Missouri, have any connections to St. Louis City, and none allege that he or she was first injured in Missouri. Additionally, Monsanto is not located in the City of St. Louis; it is headquartered in St. Louis County, which is the location of its registered agent at the time plaintiffs filed their lawsuits,” the company said.

“Additionally, the lower court judge abused his discretion and violated Missouri state law regarding permissive joinder by consolidating plaintiffs from separate cases into one multi-plaintiff trial. The Missouri legislature reformed the joinder statute in 2019 to prevent exactly these types of multi-plaintiff trials.”

The case is State ex rel. Monsanto Company v. Mullen, SC99942.

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