Missouri Senate Backs New Limits on Punitive Damages

By | February 28, 2020

Missouri’s Republican-led Senate swiftly advanced a bill tightening standards for punitive damages in liability lawsuits after an all-night filibuster by Democrats successfully blocked a separate bill limiting lawsuits over asbestos-related illnesses.

Democrats, who had opposed previous versions of the punitive damages legislation, agreed to allow it to come to a vote after several hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations during the asbestos-bill filibuster. A second Senate vote is still needed to send the punitive damages legislation to the House.

Both measures are part of a business-backed effort by Republicans to reign in lawsuits seeking money for injuries caused by businesses’ products or actions.

In liability lawsuits, plaintiffs can be awarded money to compensate them for their injuries or the harm done to them. In some cases, plaintiffs can be awarded additional money — called punitive damages — intended to punish defendants for their actions.

Business groups contend it has become too easy for plaintiffs to seek punitive damages and thus pressure businesses into larger settlements.

The Senate legislation would allow punitive damages only when proven by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant “intentionally harmed” someone “without just cause” or acted with “deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others.”

It also would prohibit punitive damage claims from being included when a lawsuit is initially filed, instead requiring plaintiffs to first show a reasonable basis for punitive damages before such claims could be added.

After negotiations involving representatives of business groups and plaintiffs attorneys, Republicans dropped a proposal that would have required liability for punitive damages to be determined in a second phase of a trial, only after determining compensatory damages.

Sponsoring Sen. Bill White, a Republican attorney from Joplin, said the bill is intended to prevent punitive damage claims from being used as leverage to get bigger settlements from businesses in cases that might involve negligence but not intentionally malicious actions.

“If you have a valid punitive damages case, this bill does absolutely nothing to stop you,” White said.

Brett Emison, president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the legislation marks a “significant change” that further protects businesses but nonetheless includes enough compromises that it still uphold people’s ability “to continue to hold wrongdoers accountable.”

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, a Columbia Republican, said the punitive damages legislation is the top priority for Republicans among various proposals targeting liability lawsuits. Rowden said Republicans decided to set aside the asbestos legislation when it became clear that Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh and her fellow Democrats would not relent in their opposition.

Walsh, a retired union pipe insulator who has been exposed to asbestos, said many of her friends and former co-workers have become ill or died from asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma. She contended the bill setting forth new procedures for asbestos-related claims could have made it harder for people to get money.

“This is something personal for me,” said Walsh, of St. Louis County. “It’s a sickening disease.”

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