On October 15, 2019 the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District overturned a jury verdict, including punitive damages, to an out of state plaintiff. The Court ruled that the trial court lacked personal jurisdiction to render the verdict pursuant to recent United States Supreme Court authority.

Facts

Plaintiff Lois Slemp, a resident of Virginia, was one of sixty-two plaintiffs alleging claims against defendants Johnson & Johnson, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc. and Imerys Talc America, Inc. for personal injuries related to use of talc products produced, manufactured and sold by defendants. Plaintiff’s claim was tried separately, and the jury awarded a verdict in her favor for actual and punitive damages in May 2017. Judgment was entered on August 3, 2017, including a finding by the trial court pursuant to Missouri Rule of Civil Procedure 74.01(b) that there was no just reason to delay entry of final judgment for purposes of proceeding with appeal. 

After the verdict but before judgment was entered, the landmark United States Supreme Court personal jurisdiction case, Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court of Ca., 137 S.Ct. 1773 (2017), was handed down. Following entry of judgment, defendants filed a timely post-trial motion on September 1, 2017 seeking dismissal of plaintiff’s claims for lack of personal jurisdiction based upon the BMS case. Defendants argued that under the Bristol-Myers case, there was no basis for the trial court to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over the non-resident plaintiff’s claims where none of the circumstances leading to the plaintiff’s claim occurred in the State of Missouri. 

Plaintiff later filed a motion requesting the Court temporarily vacate the judgment, and allow discovery on the issue of personal jurisdiction. On November 29, 2017, the trial court denied both defendants’ motions to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction and plaintiff’s motion to vacate and reopen discovery. The trial court also issued an order striking the Rule 74.01(b) language from its original judgment.   Defendants’ subsequently appealed. 

Appeal

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling denying defendants’ motion to dismiss on the personal jurisdiction issue, and vacated the trial court judgment in plaintiff’s favor. Key to the appeal was whether the judgment entered by the trial court was final for purposes of appeal. Because claims remained pending as to other plaintiffs, a rule 74.01(b) finding was necessary for defendants to proceed with an appeal. The Court originally entered the finding on August 3, 2019, then modified the judgment on November 29, 2017.

Under Missouri law, a trial court maintains control of its judgment for thirty days and may modify the judgment, for good cause, within this window, regardless of whether either party requests a change. After expiration of this original thirty-day window, a judgment may be modified only upon grounds asserted in a timely-filed post-trial motion, which must be filed within thirty days of entry of judgment.

Because neither party filed a timely, authorized post-trial motion requesting the Rule 74.01(b) language be removed, the appellate court ruled that the trial court was without authority on November 29, 2017 to modify its judgment to remove the language certifying the judgment as final for purposes of appeal. The Appellate Court therefore ruled that the Order removing the Rule 74.01(b) certification language exceeded the authority of the trial court, and the appeal was properly before the Court pursuant to the language in the August 3, 2017 Judgment. 

After determining the judgment was final for purposes of appeal, the Court found that specific personal jurisdiction may not be established by out of state plaintiffs under circumstances arising outside the state merely by joining the claim with a Missouri plaintiff. Accordingly, the rulings on the personal jurisdiction motions were reversed, and plaintiff’s judgment was reversed.

Guidance for the Future

When filing post-trial motions, all parties should be certain to timely request all post-trial relief, including any desired modification of judgment language, within the time allowed under procedural rules. Additionally, under the Bristol-Myers case personal jurisdiction against a defendant must be established for each claim made against it.