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Lowe v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co.

OPINION FILED MAY 26, 1981.

RICHARD G. LOWE ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,

v.

NORFOLK AND WESTERN RAILWAY COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS. — (MONSANTO COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Madison County; the Hon. CHARLES CHAPMAN, Judge, presiding.

MR. PRESIDING JUSTICE KASSERMAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiffs are 26 Missouri residents who are alleged to have been injured as result of a railroad chemical spill which occurred near Sturgeon, Missouri. They each filed separate suits in Madison County, Illinois, for compensatory and punitive damages, and the 26 suits were consolidated for purposes of discovery. Thereafter, defendant, Monsanto Company, filed an action, "in the nature of interpleader" in Montgomery County, Missouri, attempting to interplead the plaintiffs herein together with other plaintiffs who have sued for punitive damages in actions in Boone County, Missouri. Initially, Monsanto obtained a temporary restraining order restraining the plaintiffs herein from prosecuting their cases in Madison County, Illinois, until a decision on the merits of its suit in the nature of interpleader was obtained in the trial court in Montgomery County, Missouri.

Subsequently, in Madison County, Illinois, plaintiffs obtained a preliminary injunction enjoining Monsanto from proceeding with its interpleader action in Missouri. It is from this order and writ of injunction that Monsanto has perfected a consolidated interlocutory appeal to this court. In the interest of comity, this court stayed the operation of the Illinois injunction against Monsanto to enable the Missouri court to arrive at a ruling on the merits of Monsanto's interpleader action in the circuit court of Montgomery County, Missouri.

Thereafter, on January 6, 1981, Monsanto's suit in the nature of interpleader was dismissed on its merits by the Montgomery County, Missouri, circuit court, thereby automatically terminating this court's stay of the Madison County, Illinois, injunction against Monsanto. Despite its ruling on the merits of Monsanto's motion, however, the Missouri court reinstated the restraining order against the plaintiffs while Monsanto's appeal of its dismissal order to the Missouri Court of Appeals was pending. It is in the context of these proceedings that we consider Monsanto's appeal of the Madison County, Illinois, circuit court's order and writ of injunction.

The instant cases arise from a train derailment which occurred on January 10, 1979, at Sturgeon, Missouri. The 26 plaintiffs are either present or former employees of the Norfolk and Western Railway Company. They each brought suit in Madison County, Illinois, and alleged that they were injured as a result of exposure to a chemical substance which escaped as a result of the derailment. Monsanto was the manufacturer of the chemical being transported, orthochlorophenol; and it is alleged that Monsanto had contaminated such chemical by the introduction into it of several types of dioxin, a highly toxic and dangerous chemical. In addition to Monsanto, the plaintiffs also filed suit against three other defendants: the Norfolk and Western Railway Co., the manufacturer of the tank car which contained the chemical, and the manufacturer of a component part of the tank car.

The instant cases are a portion of a number of suits brought against Monsanto as a result of the Sturgeon spill. At the time of the hearing and order below, 22 suits brought by 59 Missouri residents were pending in the circuit court of Boone County, Missouri. In addition, Monsanto was named as a third-party defendant in a suit filed in the Federal District Court for the Western District of Missouri in which 53 Missouri residents were plaintiffs. However, only the plaintiffs in the cases brought in the State courts> of Missouri and Illinois sought punitive damages. At the time of the Madison County, Illinois, injunction order, 85 individuals and corporations, all of whom were Missouri residents, were claiming punitive damages from Monsanto as a result of the Sturgeon derailment. None of the suits were pending in Montgomery County, Missouri.

It is alleged that the orthochlorophenol involved in the spill was manufactured by Monsanto at its Sauget, Illinois, plant and that it was there contaminated by the dioxin as a result of Monsanto's negligence. It was further alleged that the chemical was then loaded by Monsanto into the tank cars and sent to its intended destination in the State of Washington from Sauget. Monsanto was served with process in the instant suits and filed its appearance in Madison County. After Monsanto's petition for dismissal on the grounds of forum non conveniens was denied on March 28, 1980, Monsanto filed its answer on May 22, 1980.

Subsequently, on September 3, 1980, Monsanto filed its petition in the nature of interpleader in the circuit court of Montgomery County, Missouri, in which it sought to interplead the Missouri and Illinois plaintiffs who had sued for punitive damages. The theory of Monsanto's suit was that since punitive damages were sought to punish it for the incident involved, the Sturgeon spill, the filing of multiple suits in various jurisdictions would expose it to excessive punishment.

On the same date, at the request of Monsanto, the Montgomery County circuit court issued an ex parte temporary restraining order. All of the 85 defendants in the interpleader action, including the plaintiffs in the 26 cases at bar, were ordered to refrain from the further prosecution of their claims for punitive damages against Monsanto until a hearing could be held on the interpleader petition. Additionally, the interpleader defendants were ordered to show cause why a temporary injunction should not be issued restraining them, during the pendency of the interpleader action, from litigating their claims for punitive damages against Monsanto except in the interpleader action. Hearing on the order to show cause was set for November 7, 1980.

On September 17, 1980, the plaintiffs in the 26 Illinois cases filed motions for a preliminary injunction in Madison County, seeking to enjoin Monsanto from prosecuting its action in Missouri. Hearing on the motions was set for September 19, 1980. On September 18, 1980, on the motion of Monsanto, the circuit court in Montgomery County, Missouri, ordered the Illinois plaintiffs to show cause why they should not be adjudged to be in contempt of court and punished accordingly for violating the Missouri temporary restraining order.

On September 19, 1980, hearing was held in Madison County, Illinois, on the motions for a preliminary injunction; and on September 26, 1980, the trial court issued the order of injunction enjoining Monsanto from prosecuting the Missouri action until January 1, 1982. In its order the court made the following finding:

"The Court finds that the Plaintiffs are entitled to have all of their claims determined by this Court and should not be required to litigate their respective claims piecemeal."

It is from this order of injunction that Monsanto appeals.

Following its filing of notice of interlocutory appeal in this cause, Monsanto sought a stay of the injunction to permit the court in Montgomery County, Missouri, to rule on its petition in the nature of interpleader in that court. The stay was granted on October 3, 1980; and the hearing on Monsanto's petition in Montgomery County, Missouri, was held on November 7, 1980. On December 26, 1980, the circuit court of Montgomery County, Missouri, notified the parties of its proposed order dissolving the temporary restraining order and dismissing Monsanto's petition in the nature of interpleader. However, the Montgomery County court agreed to withhold its order pending the filing of a petition for writ of prohibition against its order in the Missouri Court of Appeals. Ultimately, on January 6, 1981, the Missouri court entered its order dismissing Monsanto's petition on its merits; however, it restored the temporary restraining order against plaintiffs pending Monsanto's appeal of the court's order to the Missouri Court of Appeals. The following day, January 7, 1981, this court found that its stay of the Illinois injunction automatically dissolved upon entry of the order on the merits of Monsanto's action in the nature of interpleader in Missouri.

In addition to the plaintiffs in the case at bar, all of the plaintiffs in Boone County, Missouri, who claimed punitive damages were also defendants in Monsanto's Montgomery County, Missouri, action in the nature of interpleader. Each of them has now dismissed his Missouri suit and refiled it in St. Clair County, Illinois.

We observed at the outset that Monsanto's Missouri proceeding was designated to be an action "in the nature of interpleader." The distinction between an interpleader action and one "in the nature of interpleader," was discussed by the United States Supreme Court in Texas v. Florida (1939), 306 U.S. 398, 83 L.Ed. 817, 59 S.Ct. 563, in which the court stated that the peculiarity of the strict bill of interpleader was that the plaintiff asserted no interest in the debt or fund, the amount of which he placed at the disposal of the court, and asked that the rival claimants be required to settle in the equity suit the ownership of the claim among themselves. The court further observed:

"[Where] the sole ground for equitable relief is the danger of injury because of the risk of multiple suits when the liability is single [citations], and as plaintiffs who are not mere stakeholders may be exposed to that risk, equity extended its jurisdiction to such cases by the bill in the nature of interpleader. The essential of the bill in the nature of interpleader is that it calls upon the court to exercise its jurisdiction to guard against the risks of loss from the prosecution in independent suits of rival claims where the plaintiff himself claims an interest in the property or fund which is subjected to the risk. The object and ground of the jurisdiction are to guard against the consequent depletion of the fund at the expense of the plaintiff's interest in it and to protect him and ...


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