Local asbestos attorneys provided guidance on how to navigate St. Louis City’s asbestos docket and outlined recent trends at the HarrisMartin Midwest Asbestos Conference on Sept. 23.
The conference was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in St. Louis.
Attorneys Nicholas Angelides of Simmons Hanly Conroy in Alton and Carolyn Husmann of HeplerBroom in St. Louis discussed the current trends in the St. Louis asbestos docket and compared them to the Madison County asbestos docket.
"There are some important differences between the two places even though we act like there's no difference between the two," Angelides said.
A unique characteristic of St. Louis asbestos litigation is the “rolling docket.”
In St. Louis, no firm trial setting is assigned.
Instead, all cases are assigned to Judge Bryan Hettenbach, who then gives them a trial setting roughly six months later. Angelides and Husmann noted that this initial trial setting is “just a place holder.”
When the first trial date approaches, the case is rolled over in six to eight week increments as the case moves up towards the top of the list of cases.
When the case is assigned a division and is in the top 30-40 cases on the list, then it will likely go to trial.
Cases in St. Louis are also assigned to judges based on the plaintiff’s firm. So all Simmons cases will go to the same judge, Angelides explained.
The St. Louis rolling docket takes a different approach than the Madison County asbestos docket, which has been called a “rocket docket” in the American tort Reform Association’s Judicial Hellholes report.
In Madison County, cases are assigned firm trial settings shortly after they are filed, and cases are set sometimes years in advance. In recent months, sometimes hundreds of cases are set for trial on the same date.
However, Madison County Associate Judge Stephen Stobbs updated the asbestos litigation standing order on Aug. 19, holding that no more than 19 cases may be identified as priority cases for a jury trial docket “notwithstanding the number of plaintiff’s firms assigned to trial that week or the number of cases considered to be trial ready.”
Further, Stobbs wrote that beginning in 2017, the court will set no more than 780 cases for trial each year.
In St. Louis, plaintiffs may still obtain expedited trial settings and depositions.
However, Angelides and Husmann urge attorneys to provide notice when they seek expedited depositions. While a notice is not required, they said St. Louis City judges typically don’t approve motions when notice wasn’t provided.
Husmann advised that accelerated depositions should only be used for critically ill plaintiffs.
"When firms want to accelerate every single deposition, that's when we get a lot of push back," Angelides added.
The St. Louis asbestos docket also uses "case.net" to file and serve documents. However, a defendant can only be served documents via case.net after the party has entered an appearance in the case.
A more recent trend in St. Louis City is the update to the Workers’ Compensation Act, which was changed in 2013 to include occupational diseases to the "exclusive remedy" provision.
Injury accidents are compensable only if the accident was the prevailing factor in causing both the resulting medical condition and disability, the law states.
If an asbestos plaintiff sustained numerous exposures, the Act states that the last employer in whose employment the plaintiff was last exposed to the hazard is liable.
The workers' compensation law includes an "opt-out" provision for employers who would prefer to challenge claims in circuit court rather than handle them through work comp.