John M. Reeves, the founder and owner of Reeves Law LLC, is an appellate attorney based in St. Louis, Missouri. He has briefed and argued cases in the Missouri Court of Appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He also regularly briefs cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, and has submitted briefs in the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Mr. Reeves authored an amicus brief on behalf of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers in support of Johnson & Johnson’s petition for a writ of certiorari in this case. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
We’re all familiar with the jury trial. It forms a basic part of our legal system’s guaranty of fairness during litigation. Twelve people chosen from all walks of life sit in a courtroom and listen as each side presents evidence. At the close of the evidence, the judge reads instructions to the jury explaining the law and how they must apply it to the facts of the case. The jury then retires to a tiny, secluded room to discuss what they have heard and render a verdict. If it is a civil case, a verdict against the defendant may mean the defendant has to pay the plaintiff monetary damages
But when most people think of a jury trial, they think of a single plaintiff squaring off against a single defendant. Two sides tell the jury their stories, and the jury then decides who they believe. Even in cases involving complex fact patterns, the situation is relatively straightforward—did the defendant injure the plaintiff, and if so to what extent? But what happens when multiple plaintiffs, each with a different story, sue a single defendant in a single lawsuit? Can a jury reasonably be expected to differentiate between each plaintiff’s particularized story in assessing whether the defendant is liable, and if so for how much money?
This is one of the issues presented in a multi-billion dollar talc lawsuit that Johnson & Johnson is asking the Supreme Court of the United State to review. Twenty-two plaintiffs brought the lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson in the City of St. Louis, Missouri—one of the most plaintiff-friendly venues in the country. While they all alleged that they suffered injuries from their use of talc, the actual manner in which they used the talc differed from one plaintiff to the next. In addition, each of the 22 plaintiffs had distinct health backgrounds. Despite these differences, the trial court consolidated the claims of all 22 plaintiffs into a single jury trial, rather than each plaintiff having a separate jury trial on her individual claims. In other words, a single group of twelve jurors had to listen to evidence from 22 different individuals and then determine not only whether Johnson & Johnson was liable to each of the plaintiffs, but also assess the extent of that liability.
Nor was that all. Of the 22 plaintiffs, 17 of them used the talc in a state other than Missouri. For those 17 plaintiffs, Missouri law did not apply to their lawsuit—the law of their respective state did. The 17 plaintiffs came from 11 states outside of Missouri. This meant that, when it came time for the trial judge to instruct the jury on how to apply the law to the evidence, he had to instruct them on the laws of 12 different states.
Sound overwhelming? You’re not alone. The trial judge himself recognized the matter was ripe for confusion, noting that he was “frankly concerned about losing the jury,” and it took the trial judge over five hours to instruct the jury on the proper legal standards it needed to use in assessing the evidence. But the judge nevertheless overruled Johnson & Johnson’s objection that trying the claims of 22 plaintiffs in a single case was inherently confusing to a jury and thus compromised the fundamental fairness of a jury trial.
At the end of the day, this case is not about the merits of talc litigation. Rather, it is about what constitutes a fair jury trial, and whether twelve individuals from a variety of different backgrounds can reasonably be expected to sift through multiple stories from plaintiffs with unique situations, all while applying the law of 12 different states. Hopefully, the Court will grant certiorari and make clear that such multi-plaintiff lawsuits are fundamentally unfair to defendants. The dignity of the jury trial demands nothing less.
The case is Johnson & Johnson v. Ingham, No. 20-1223.