The Supreme Court of Missouri recently decided a case that significantly changes the handling of motions for transfer for improper venue under Missouri’s Supreme Court Rule 51.045. The case is State ex rel. Kansas City Southern Railway Co. v. Nixon, 282 S.W.3d 363 (Mo.banc 2009) (Overview/Summary). In this case, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s granting of a motion for leave to amend the petition to add an additional defendant, thereby correcting the problem with venue, and denial of a motion for transfer for improper venue. To understand how this case changes proceedings under Rule 51.045, some history is necessary.
Prior to 1994, proper venue was a prerequisite for personal jurisdiction. In the case of State ex rel. DePaul Health Center v. Mummert, 870 S.W.2d 820 (Mo.banc 1994), the Supreme Court of Missouri formally severed the two concepts.
However, even after Mummert, case law indicated that a trial court where venue was improper had no authority to take any action after a motion to transfer for improper venue was filed except to grant the motion. A plaintiff could sometimes take actions to correct venue defects, but the situations were limited and the power of the trial court to do anything except rule on the motion to transfer was virtually nonexistent.
That brings us to the 2005 amendments to Missouri’s general venue statute, R.S.Mo. Section 508.010, and the adoption of R.S.Mo. Section 508.012. Section 508.012 provides for transfer anytime prior to trial when a plaintiff or defendant is added or removed “from a petition” and that change alters the determination of venue under section 508.010. Suddenly, venue is much more fluid. If a petition is amended a month before trial and the new petition drops a defendant, venue may have changed and, if requested by a party, the case “shall” be transferred.
That brings us to January of this year, when the Supreme Court of Missouri explained, in no uncertain terms, that jurisdiction in the circuit courts is limited to personal and subject matter jurisdiction. J.C.W. ex rel. Webb v. Wyciskalla, 275 S.W.3d 249 (Mo.banc 2009).
The case arose out of an auto-train collision in Louisiana. In the original petition, the only defendant was the Kansas City Southern Railway Company, a Missouri corporation. The plaintiffs were all residents of Louisiana. Under section 508.010.5(1), venue was only proper in St. Louis County because the injury occurred outside the state of Missouri and the defendant’s registered agent was located in St. Louis County. The case was filed in Jackson County, Case No. 0816-CV18142.
The railroad filed a motion to transfer. Being the industrious attorneys that we are, we filed a motion to add another defendant, a railroad employee residing in Jackson County. We argued that the 2005 changes to the venue statutes now allowed amendment to correct venue defects. Amazingly, the trial court agreed, granted the motion for leave to amend, and denied the motion to transfer.
The railroad obtained a preliminary writ from the Supreme Court of Missouri.
After briefing and oral argument, the Supreme Court held that R.S.Mo. Section 476.410 and Rule 51.045, which require transfer, do not require it immediately or prohibit the court from taking any other actions before ruling on the motion to transfer. The Court found that limiting the court’s ability to allow amendments would be inconsistent with the new section 508.012.
The Court explained:
There are two reasons to allow a judge to grant leave to amend to add a party before acting on the motion to transfer. The first is that neither section 476.410, RSMo 2000, nor Rule 51.045 requires the circuit court to stop everything and transfer the case. [*9] In fact, the rule provides that an opposing party may file a response to the motion within thirty days. Neither the statute nor the rule precludes the opposing party from filing a motion to amend the petition — a motion to amend may well be the most appropriate response to a motion to transfer.
The second reason for allowing an amendment before ruling on the motion to transfer is practical. If the court immediately had ordered the case transferred to St. Louis County, as the railway urged, the plaintiffs could have dismissed the action without prejudice under Rule 67.02 and filed a new petition in Jackson County naming the railway and McIntosh as defendants. And, of course, venue would be proper. Time and money would be wasted in this process, and the ultimate effect would be nil.
The resulting amendment to the pleading — i.e., the addition of McIntosh as a defendant — rendered venue in Jackson County proper. This means that there are two correct venues in this case — Jackson County and St. Louis County. The trial court did not err in overruling the railway’s motion to transfer.
In this case, the circuit court had both personal and subject matter jurisdiction. It did not exceed its jurisdiction or its authority by allowing plaintiffs to cure the defect in venue by adding McIntosh as a defendant.
As can be seen from this excerpt, the court did not focus on the 2005 changes to the language of section 508.010. While the court discussed section 508.012, that was not its focus either. As a result, the opinion does not appear to be tied to venue determined under section 508.010, but should apply to any venue statute. Further, the reasoning would appear to allow amendments in addition to adding a party that could affect venue. Finally, if section 476.410 and Rule 51.045 do not require the court to “stop everything”, presumably the trial court can rule on other motions prior to ruling on the motion to transfer venue. As a result, this opinion has potentially far reaching implications when dealing with motions to transfer for improper venue.