Lawmakers rose up to protect Doe Run Resources from large punitive damage awards, successfully overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of what he called an unconstitutional special law.
The House on Wednesday sent House Bill 650 to the Senate on a 110-51 vote, with one person voting “present.” Later the Senate approved the measure 26-8.
Matthew Wohl, vice president of law for The Doe Run Co., hailed the Legislature’s action.
“We are pleased that the majority of Missouri’s legislators supported a responsible approach that allows companies like ourselves to conduct remediation of former mine sites under approved plans, without fear of unreasonable punitive damages,” he said in a statement.
Doe Run is doing its “fair share” of remediation work, he said.
The law bars the award of punitive damages in a lawsuit if the defendant company made, or is making, good-faith efforts to remediate the sites. It further caps punitive damages at $2.5 million per lawsuit, regardless of the number of defendants. The law also states the Tort Victims Compensation Fund is not entitled to any portion of a punitive damage award; instead, one-half of any such damages will be paid into the state’s lead abatement loan fund.
Missouri law already caps punitive damages at $500,000 or five times the amount of actual damages, whichever is higher, against any one defendant. But many of the lawsuits against Doe Run were filed before 2005, when the caps were put into place.
In his July 12 veto letter, Nixon said the bill, because it applies to just one entity, would result in a special law in violation of the state constitution. The bill “would not benefit all defendants, or all defendants engaged in mining, or even a particular type of mining, but rather only those defendants that dealt in underground hard rock mining or hard rock milling sites that ceased operations prior to January 1, 1975,” he wrote.
Nixon also decried the retrospective application of the damages reduction. Under this law, the reduction in punitive damages would apply to actions that have already been filed, even if a judgment for damages has already been ordered, he wrote.
The state constitution bans the enactment of both retrospective laws and special laws, Nixon said in his veto letter.
Associated Industries of Missouri supported the Doe Run legislation. In a statement on its website, AIM explained the legislation was “necessary to protect around 1,600 Missouri jobs at the Doe Run Company and about 6,000 indirect Missouri jobs supported by the company.”
Doe Run Resources and the former owners of old lead mining and milling sites in St. Francois County will be in court next month defending against claims that lead at the sites harmed children living around the properties.
Three separate cases will be tried in one setting at the St. Louis Circuit Court, just like the 2011 trial that resulted in a $358.5 million verdict for 16 plaintiffs.
Seven plaintiffs in the current cases allege lead pollution from the chat piles and other tailing sites in the area caused the plaintiffs to suffer physical and psychological injuries as well as learning and other disabilities.