Missouri lawmakers have chipped away at the ability of injury victims to win money in court cases – nixing big-dollar judgments in some lead poisoning and traffic accident cases, and shielding volunteer health care workers from all but the most egregious liability claims.
Three of the 10 vetoes overridden this past week by the Legislature dealt with bills restricting liability lawsuits. They marked the largest philosophical success for a Republican-led Legislature that failed to enact measures cutting taxes and reinforcing gun rights.
The additional liability limits were the latest in a decade-long movement by Republican lawmakers to strengthen the legal protections for businesses and professionals against what they consider to be costly – and at times, unjustified – lawsuits. Republicans call it “tort reform” – a “tort’ being a wrongful act or injury for which someone can sue.
“We definitely had some significant tort reform bills that crossed the finish line,” House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said after the veto session.
Some of the new liability laws, which are to take effect 30 days after the veto overrides, likely are to be challenged in court by attorneys who represent injury victims.
The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys contends there are constitutional problems with the new law limiting punitive damages in some lead-contamination lawsuits against The Doe Run Co. and the measure barring uninsured drivers who are injured in vehicle accidents from collecting non-economic damages from insured drivers who were at fault.
Republican supporters cast both measures as a matter of fairness. Doe Run said it needs legal protections for old mining sites that it owns in order to keep the company from being sued out of business and having to lay off its 1,600 Missouri employees. The insurance industry said the measure about uninsured motorists could entice more drivers to follow existing laws requiring liability insurance.
Supporters of the liability shield for volunteer health care providers hope it will encourage more people to aid charities or help out during emergencies.
But “any time there’s a bill that’s offering immunity for conduct, there just has to be a concern about that,” said Sara Schuett, executive director of the trial attorneys association. “We want people to be accountable for their actions.”
Since gaining control of the Senate in 2001 and the House in 2003, Republicans have continually pressed for lawsuit limits. Their efforts were vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden in 2003 and 2004.
But Republican Gov. Matt Blunt signed a comprehensive rewrite of Missouri’s liability laws in 2005. It capped punitive damages, lowered the ceiling on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases and restricted where lawsuits can be filed, among other things.
The Missouri Supreme Court struck down the limits on medical malpractice claims in July 2012, ruling that they violated a longstanding right to a jury trial that had been embedded in Missouri’s first constitution in 1820. Lawmakers failed to pass a bill reinstating those caps during their annual session that ended in May.
But the trio of laws enacted by veto overrides this past week continues a trend of carving out specific legal protections for certain categories of people or businesses.
Last year, Missouri enacted liability protections for entities that register with the state as “agritourism” operators. That law says places like pumpkin patches, corn mazes, berry-picking farms and horse-riding ranches are not liable for injury or death “resulting from the inherent risks of agritourism activities” – so long as they put up warning signs.
According to a Missouri Department of Agriculture website, 564 businesses already have registered as agritourism operators.
A similar Missouri law enacted in 2005 exempts entities that rent canoes, kayaks and rafts from being held liable for injuries or deaths “resulting from the inherent risks of paddlesport activities.”
“It’s a pattern we’ve seen for quite some time, where a particular business interest doesn’t want to be accountable and they come to the Legislature asking to be let off the hook for damage they’ve caused or will cause,” Schuett said.
Attorneys who defend clients from such liability lawsuits contend the restrictions are reasonable. Republican lawmakers say they also are necessary to ensure a stable business environment that encourages employers to expand their operations and hire more workers.
“I think our state is pretty progressive in its attempts to restrict the anomalies – the runaway verdicts, things like that,” said Steven Coronado, a Kansas City attorney who is president of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers. “There’s continued attempts to keep those kinds of things to a minimum.”
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