Hope springs eternal. At least that is what the optimists say, and while we would like to see the bright side of the Missouri Supreme Court’s split opinion on venue in Barron v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., No. SC 96151, 2017 WL 4001487 (Mo. Sept. 12, 2017), we are having trouble this morning finding our rose-colored glasses. The court’s ruling that a black box warning on the exact condition at issue is “irrelevant” does not help either.
Faithful readers will recognize Barron v. Abbott Laboratories from our list of worst opinions of 2016. The Missouri Court of Appeals’ opinion in Barron affirming a $38 million verdict came in at #3 on that list. What did that opinion do to warrant such distinction? You might call it a twofer: The court upheld an unfair application of Missouri’s unique and unexplainable venue rules, plus held that a black box warning that warned of the exact risk at issue was sufficiently inadequate to sustain a failure-to-warn verdict and punitive damages. We discussed that opinion here.
The Missouri Supreme Court has now affirmed this result, and it is still unfair on multiple levels. Let’s start with venue. The only claims at issue in this trial were those brought by a Minnesota plaintiff against an Illinois defendant under Minnesota law. Of course, the Minnesota plaintiff found her way to the City of St. Louis by filing a complaint there with 24 plaintiffs from 13 different states, including four from Missouri. Barron, 2017 WL 4001487, at *1. This is a tactic we often see and to which we object. But the angle that seems to be unique under Missouri procedure is that venue is proper in the county where any plaintiff “was first injured.” Id. at *5 (concurring opinion). That means that any plaintiff—including the Minnesotan who got her claims to trial—can piggyback his or her way into any Missouri county where any co-plaintiff “was first injured,” even though neither her claims nor the defendant have any identifiable relationship to that forum.
Even the Missouri Supreme Court in Barron could not defend this rule, but instead affirmed the plaintiff’s verdict on the basis that the trial court’s refusal to transfer venue caused the defendant no prejudice. Id. at *2. Query how a verdict this size on these facts would not demonstrate prejudice. Regardless, we find it interesting that a four-judge majority of the Missouri Supreme Court dodged the merits.
Which leads to a ray of hope. Three judges filed a concurring opinion stating that once the trial court determined that each Plaintiff’s claims should be tried separately, it was error for the court not to sever and transfer claims for which venue was no longer proper. Id. at *7. In other words, venue is not a static inquiry. When the trial court determined that the claims should be tried separately, it “necessarily decided there are no further gains in efficiency of expeditiousness to be had from the joinder.” Id. at *6. At that point, “the trial court has discretion to deny a subsequent or renewed motion to sever only in the rarest of circumstances” and “an abuse of discretion in denying such a motion will be patently prejudicial.” Id. The concurring opinion further faulted the majority for applying a “no prejudice” standard because a defendant
will never obtain relief without showing the elusive, undefined, and likely unprovable prejudice that the principal opinion demands. I am unwilling to countenance such an immediate, improper, and easily avoided outcome.
Id. at *7. Sure, it’s a concurring opinion, but it calls out the unworkable situation that Barron has reinforced. We will take this four-to-three decision as endorsing efforts for reform.
Missouri-based defendants should take particular interest. The United States Supreme Court’s BMS opinion clamping down on personal jurisdiction should reduce the number of out-of-state plaintiffs suing non-Missouri defendants in Missouri. But the joinder problem remains where personal jurisdiction is not an issue. As the concurring opinion noted, “Even though the use of a Rule 52.05(a) joinder to combine multiple in-state and out-of-state plaintiffs in a single action largely will be prevented in the future by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, [137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017)], . . . the use of Rule 52.05(a) to join the claims of multiple Missouri plaintiffs in a single petition will (and should) still occur.” Barron, at *4. Missouri’s joinder rules therefore discriminate against Missouri defendants, who will remain subject to Missouri’s joinder rules while out-of-state defendants will less often be around. This is another reason why reform should finally occur.
Now, how about the warnings? When a boxed warning—the strongest warning permitted under the FDCA—warns of the complication about which the plaintiff is complaining, it should be adequate as a matter of law. Period. You can read more on this here. In Bannon, the Supreme Court did not set forth what the black box warning said, so we will: “[THE DRUG] CAN PRODUCE TERATOGENIC EFFECTS SUCH AS NEURAL TUBE DEFECTS (E.G., SPINA BIFIDA). ACCORDINGLY, THE USE OF [THE DRUG] IN WOMEN OF CHILDBEARING POTENTIAL REQUIRES THAT THE BENEFITS OF ITS USE BE WEIGHED AGAINST THE RISK OF INJURY TO THE FETUS.” The plaintiff in Barron alleges she was born with spina bifida, which is right there in the warning—in all caps, and boldface, and surrounded by box. To make matters worse, the Missouri Supreme Court held that the black box warning was “not relevant” to punitive damage. Id. at *4. Quibble if you will over whether a black box warning is adequate as a matter of law. But where the basis for liability is an alleged failure to warn, there is no way to explain how a clear and prominent warning on the exact complication at issue can be “not relevant.” We will leave it at that.
So is there room for hope? As we observed in connection with another Missouri case a few weeks ago, time will tell. Whatever the future holds, we are betting that Barron v. Abbott Laboratories will be in the running for the worst opinions of 2017. Time (and Bexis) will tell.