On August 15, 2023, the Missouri Supreme Court in State ex rel. Monsanto Co. v. Mullen, No. SC99942 (Mo. Aug. 15, 2023) (en banc), clarified competing interpretations of Mo. Rev. Stat. 508.010.5(1) (2016) with regard to the proper venue for defendant corporations sued by plaintiffs alleging first injury outside the state of Missouri. In the opinion, the Missouri Supreme Court held that venue is determined based on the location of the defendant corporation’s registered agent at the time the suit is filed, rather than the registered agent’s location on the date of a plaintiff’s first alleged injury, resolving an ambiguity contained in the statute.
In the underlying lawsuits filed in the Circuit Court of St. Louis City between 2017 and 2021, Defendant Monsanto Company (“Monsanto”) filed Motions to Transfer Venue to St. Louis County pursuant to section 508.010.5(1) because at the time the relevant cases were filed, Monsanto’s registered agent was in St. Louis County.
Missouri’s venue statute, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 508.010.5(1) (2016), states:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, in all actions in which there is any count alleging a tort and in which the plaintiff was first injured outside the state of Missouri, venue shall be determined as follows:
(1) If the defendant is a corporation, then venue shall be in any county where a defendant corporation’s registered agent is located or, if the plaintiff’s principal place of residence was in the state of Missouri on the date the plaintiff was first injured, then venue may be in the county of the plaintiff’s principal place of residence on the date the plaintiff was first injured.
In December 2021, the Circuit Court of St. Louis City granted plaintiffs’ motion to consolidate their individual claims and schedule their separate claims for one trial. On May 5, 2022, Monsanto filed a motion to reconsider the Circuit Court’s order consolidating the individual claims for trial, reiterating its argument that venue is appropriate only in St. Louis County for the individual claimants, all whom alleged first injury to Roundup outside the state of Missouri.
In contrast to Monsanto’s position, plaintiffs argued venue was proper in St. Louis City pursuant to Mo. Rev. Stat. § 508.010.9 (2016), which states that “[i]n all actions, venue shall be determined as of the date the plaintiff was first injured.” Plaintiffs further asserted Monsanto’s registered agent was in St. Louis City at the time each plaintiff was first injured. On June 8, 2022, the Circuit Court overruled Monsanto’s motion to reconsider and set the case for trial to begin in January 2023. Monsanto then filed a petition with the Missouri Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus, challenging the Circuit Court’s order.
The Missouri Supreme Court analyzed the exact language of the venue statute, noting that it uses the present tense to describe the relevant location of the defendant corporation’s registered agent, placing venue where the registered agent “is located,” not where the registered agent “was located” on the date the plaintiff was first injured. See Mo. Rev. State. § 508.010.5(1) (2016) (emphasis added). The Court also considered that courts in other jurisdictions, including the U.S. Supreme Court, followed similar reasoning. See Dole Food Co. v. Patrickson, 538 U.S. 468, 478 (2003) (“[T]he plain text of [the relevant] provision, because it isexpressed in the present tense, requires that instrumentality status be determined at the timesuit is filed.”).The Missouri Supreme Court further noted the use of past tense for other provisions under the venue statute: “[t]he legislature’s use of contrasting verb tenses, particularly within the same subdivision of a statute, is a significant indicator in statutory construction and confirms the plain language of section 508.010.5(2), providing for venue in any county where the defendant corporation’s registered agent is located, was not accidental.” State ex rel. Monsanto Co. v. Mullen, No. SC99942 at 7 (Mo. Aug. 15, 2023) (en banc). Last, the inclusion of “[n]otwithstanding any other provision of law” in section 508.010.5 makes clear the provision trumps section 508.010.9, as plaintiffs contend. Id.
The outcome of the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling provides clarity on the proper venue for corporate defendants sued in Missouri by out-of-state plaintiffs alleging first injury outside of Missouri. No longer will venue be proper based on a corporation’s previous decision for where to maintain a registered agent. Going forward, corporate defendants may change location of their registered agent in anticipation of litigation. Further, the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision is win for common sense statutory interpretation of legislative intent.