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After 20 hours, Senate hits brakes on asbestos litigation in tort reform compromise

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — It took nearly 20 hours before the Missouri Senate finally reached a compromise on controversial tort reform legislation.

The Senate perfected SB 591, a large bill tackling changes to punitive damage assessments, shortly after 10 a.m. Wednesday — following an overnight filibuster on legislation changing how asbestos claims are handled in Missouri. 

It was SB 575 from Republican Sen. Bill Eigel that caused strife in the upper chamber, leaving Democrats to launch a filibuster that lasted more than 18 hours. The bill is an attempt to reform asbestos litigation. Democrats argued the bill would make it more difficult for victims to seek compensation; Republicans said the opposite. 

“I am committed to creating a process that leads to compensation getting to victims sooner rather than later,” Eigel previously told The Missouri Times. “I’m committed to ensuring that nothing in the bill will extend the tort process, and finally, I’m committed to ensuring that as a result of requiring the trust claims up front, we’re going to have the transparency for juries that has been lacking in the past.

State Sen. Gina Walsh

The filibuster — which covered professional sports, favorite breakfast foods, and senators’ workout routines — lasted until just after 9 a.m. Wednesday when the bill was ultimately laid over in favor of a compromise. 

Democrats vowed to remain steadfast against the asbestos legislation, with Sen. Brian Williams largely holding court in the early hours of the morning. At times, tensions flared as Tuesday night gave way to Wednesday morning. 

“You and I are going to stand on the floor tonight and try to protect victims who fall ill to these diseases,” Minority Floor Leader Gina Walsh said at the start of the filibuster to state Sen. Lauren Arthur.

Arthur also tweeted early in the debate: “On the first day of candidate filing, we get a prescient reminder of why it’s important to elect people who stand up for workers. The [Missouri] Senate is currently debating a SB 575 — making it harder for mesothelioma victims to seek redress. I won’t sit down, even after the sun comes up.”

Thousands of people die from illnesses related to asbestos exposure — such as mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other cancers — each year, making it one of the most prominent causes of work-related injuries and deaths. And exposure is not just confined to one industry; it’s found among veterans, first responders, plumbers, construction workers, and more. 

Some of Tuesday’s debate centered around provisions Democrats hoped to attach to the bill that would add certain protections to firefighters and veterans specifically. 

Walsh, who has been a tenacious barricade to similar legislation throughout her tenure in the Senate, attempted to add an amendment to Eigel’s bill that would opt firefighters out — an effort she said could help those individuals with asbestos litigation. This could guard firefighters against being blocked from suing over asbestos claims under the so-called “fireman’s rule,” which bars first responders from being able to sue for damages caused general negligence on the job, she told The Missouri Times. 

Walsh’s amendment failed in a 15-9 vote taken just before midnight Tuesday. Republican state Sen. Lincoln Hough broke with his party to vote in favor of her bill, siding with the firefighters. Hough has also sponsored legislation this year that would designate cancer contracted by a firefighter an occupational disease under certain circumstances. 

State Sen. Brian Williams

Eigel opposed the amendment, calling it a “concession” rather than a “compromise” that would help push the bill over the finish line. He also said he had qualms about singling out a certain group with the bill. 

The asbestos bill was laid over Wednesday in favor of another tort reform bill — one addressing punitive damages. SB 591, from Sen. Bill White, is a massive bill that would “fundamentally change” how punitive damages are assessed in Missouri. The bill stalled in the Senate earlier this month but was perfected Wednesday. 

In part, the bill adds steps to the filing process and codifies in state statute that a plaintiff must prove a case by “clear and convincing evidence.” It changes provisions related to insurance agreements and malpractice cases as well as reforms merchandising practices. 

After the asbestos bill failed, Walsh said “thankfully” Senate Democrats “beat the special interests and scored a win for everyday Missourians.” 

“It is shameful Republicans in the Senate chose to side with politically-connected lobbyists over Missourians dying from cancer,” Walsh said. 

Williams said he participated in the filibuster because he does not “believe the provisions in this bill will help expedite the litigation process for the claimant.”

“I believe this bill permits stalling tactics to slow down the litigation process, which may lead to the claimant passing away before they can receive their remedy,” Williams said Wednesday. “I believe this places an undue burden on the claimant and their family.”