Appellate Court Finds That Failure to Transfer Venue Was Not Prejudicial in Affirming $38 Million Jury Verdict

Abbott Laboratories Inc. appealed the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis’s judgment on the jury’s verdict in the total amount of $38 million to Maddison Schmidt for her personal injury lawsuit. Of that total amount, $15 million was for compensatory damages; $23 million was for punitive damages.

Abbott argued that the Circuit Court erred in overruling its pretrial motion to transfer venue from the City of St. Louis Circuit Court to the St. Louis County Circuit Court, which are two different courts. St. Louis City operates a separate court system as it is not a municipal entity that is part of the surrounding St. Louis County, which runs its own court system.

Schmidt was born with spina bifida and other birth defects. She resides in Minnesota. Her mother injected Depakote, an anti-epileptic drug, manufactured and marketed by Abbott Laboratories, while Schmidt was in utero. Her mother ingested the Depakote in Minnesota. Abbott’s company headquarters are located in suburban Chicago. Despite the lack of connection with Missouri, Schmidt joined with four Missouri plaintiffs and nineteen other non-Missouri plaintiffs to file a single action against Abbott Laboratories in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis.

“Abbott . . . moved to transfer the non-Missouri plaintiffs’ claims to the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, which Abbott argued was the proper venue for these plaintiffs.” The Circuit Court judge in the City of St. Louis denied the motion and “ordered each side to nominate plaintiffs for separate, individual trials, though all the plaintiffs’ claims remained joined in one action. Schmidt was nominated by the plaintiffs’ counsel, and a jury trial was held solely on Schmidt’s claims without severing the other plaintiffs’ claims.”

After the jury found in favor of Schmidt and awarded her $15 million in compensatory damages and $23 million in punitive damages against Abbott, the St. Louis Circuit Court judge overruled Abbott’s post-trial motion and entered judgment in accordance with the jury’s verdict. The judgment was affirmed in the Missouri Appellate Court. Abbott had argued that pursuant to Missouri’s civil procedure, the proper venue for Schmidt’s claim was St. Louis County and the joinder of Missouri plaintiffs with Schmidt’s claim could not be used as venue link to the City of St. Louis.

Even assuming the Circuit Court erred by either failing to transfer venue or failing to sever the claims, an error does not warrant reversal on appeal unless the error results in prejudice. Dieser v. St. Anthony’s Med Ctr., 498 S.W. 3d 419, 435-36 (Mo. Banc 2016); Lewis v. Wahl, 842 S.W. 2d 82, 84-85 (Mo. Banc 1992). Under Missouri law, “no appellate court shall reverse any judgment unless it finds that error was committed by the trial court against the appellant materially affecting the merits of the action.”

The Missouri Appellate Court held that the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis – even if it were the improper venue – had jurisdiction to enter judgment against Abbott, and its failure to transfer venue or sever the claim is like any other alleged non-jurisdictional error and is subject to Rule 84.13(b).

While maintaining its position that prejudice is not required, Abbott also argued it was prejudiced by the Circuit Court’s failure to transfer venue or sever the claims because the City of St. Louis court is a more favorable venue to plaintiffs than St. Louis County. Essentially, Abbott argued that the City of St. Louis is biased in general, but Abbott failed to point to any specific event or action in the case or trial to support this generality. Abbott failed to identify any particular ruling by the circuit court suggesting biased or any particular juror who should have been disqualified for bias. The claim of prejudice will not suffice the appeals panel stated.

While Abbott may have preferred a trial in St. Louis County, it could not establish the trial in the City of St. Louis was unfair. This Court declined to hold Abbott was prejudiced simply because a fair trial and jury in the Circuit Court of St. Louis rendered judgment and verdict rather than a fair judging jury in St. Louis County. Because Abbott failed to satisfy the prejudice requirement, this Court did not need to decide whether the Circuit Court erred in either failing to transfer venue or failing to sever the claims.

Barron v. Abbott Laboratories, No. SC 96131, 2017 WL 4001487 (Mo. Banc Sept. 12, 2017).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury lawsuits, birth trauma injury cases, pharmaceutical product defect lawsuits and product liability cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Burbank, Justice, Palos Hills, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, St. Charles, Park Ridge, Chicago (Garfield Park, Brighton Park, Englewood, Gresham, Roseland, Back of the Yards, Bronzeville, Kenwood, Greek Town, Goose Island, Old Town, Wicker Park), Schiller Park and Schaumburg, Ill.

Robert D. Kreisman has been an active member of both the Illinois and Missouri bars since 1976.

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