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Some tort measures remain alive in Missouri Legislature

Scott Lauck//May 1, 2020

Some tort measures remain alive in Missouri Legislature

Scott Lauck//May 1, 2020

Herman Morse
State Rep. Herman Morse, R-Dexter, wears a protective mask as he sits at his desk in the House chamber Monday, April 27, 2020, in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Several proposed changes to Missouri tort laws remain in play in the final weeks of the truncated 2020 session.

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, lawmakers who have been absent from the Capitol since mid-March returned to work April 27. They face a May 8 deadline to pass a budget and will end the session May 15.

RELATED: Missouri Lawyers Media 2020 Tort Tracker

Although the constitutionally required budget is the only piece of legislation that must pass, other priorities of the Republican majority also are poised to reach the finish line. Among them is a bill that sets higher standards for recovering punitive damages.

The bill, SB 591, needs to be heard in a House committee and pass the full House before it could advance to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk.

David Klarich, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and other organizations, said an expanded draft of the bill circulated last week with a number of other tort-related items.

Klarich said the House has put together a number of other lengthy “omnibus” bills that he doubts will be able to pass.

“They’ve created monsters out of these bills, and it’s just not going to go well,” he said.

Another version of the omnibus tort bill created last week, SB 662, began as a bill limiting liability for charitable groups that distribute donated shelf-stable packaged foods. A stand-alone version of that noncontroversial measure, HB 1711, got final approval April 29.

Rich AuBuchon, a lobbyist for a number of business groups, said he doubts the Senate would accept a version that differs from what it passed in early March. The punitive damages bill cleared the Senate as part of a compromise that ended a 20-hour filibuster by Democratic opponents.

“It’s the No. 1 priority for the business community and the No. 1 priority for the Senate,” he said.

The bill would require plaintiffs to show “malicious misconduct or conduct that intentionally caused damage to the plaintiff” to recover punitive damages. It also would require plaintiffs to conduct discovery to demonstrate a basis for such an award before they could be added to the suit.

The bill also changes language in the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act to require the plaintiff to prove that he or she acted as a “reasonable consumer” and that any damages be reasonably related to the harm caused.

Another bill with apparent momentum is HB 2049, which protects insurance companies from judgments reached under section 537.065 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri. Such ’065 agreements are used when the insurer declines to unconditionally defend its policyholder. The bill is intended to prevent parties under such agreements from obtaining an award in arbitration, then seeking to collect it from the insurer.

The bill passed the House in March and received a Senate committee hearing the morning after the legislature reconvened. The committee also added provisions that seek to protect front-line health care workers dealing with COVID-19.

The Senate would have to pass the amended bill, and the House would have to agree to the changes.

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