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Newest perfected tort reform bill: punitive damages


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In what was the latest in a slew of tort reform measures, the Missouri House gave approval to a bill altering the laws on punitive damages. And as with the previous tort reform measures, the legislation received heavy pushback from Democrats.

“This bill is good for our economy,” said Rep. Bruce DeGroot, the bill sponsor. “Tort reform is good for all of us.”

The problem, as he sees it, is current punitive damages statutes are being used beyond the intended purposes, and as a result businesses — particularly small businesses — are being hurt.  

Supporters argue people “just throw” punitive damages “out there” in cases, often before any facts are determined. And by doing so, the “costs are passed on to general society.”

Rep. Phil Christofanelli contended Missouri has a “toxic business environment.”

To that end, DeGroot is proposing a solution.

Under HB 489, a claim for punitive damages will not be part of the initial pleadings and may be filed as a written motion with permission of the court no later than 120 days prior to the final pretrial conference or trial date.

The legislation establishes that punitive damages will only be awarded if there is “clear and convincing” evidence of intentional harm.

When it comes to punitive damages and health care providers, the legislation would require a jury find clear and convincing evidence that the health care provider intentionally caused damage or demonstrated malicious misconduct. Evidence of negligence, including indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others, would not constitute a basis for a punitive damage award.

Opponents saw the changes in the bill as a way to help companies instead of constituents.

“It is not good for our constituents. Is it not good for the citizens,” said Rep. Mark Ellebracht.

He, and other Democrats, argued that punitive damages are designed to punish and deter egregious conduct. Altering when punitive damages can be sought and upping the bar for the definition of “intentional,” opponents argued, will essentially let “bad actors” off the hook.

“They didn’t intent to kill people, they intended to make money” could be an argument used so the punitive damages standard under the bill wouldn’t be met, Rep. Gina Mitten contended.

She went on to argue there are multiple Missouri counties suing drug manufacturers for lying and misleading about opioids and under the legislation, she believes, punitive damages couldn’t be sought.

Mitten also saw concern with the way the bill would work in combination with 2017’s SB 43, which altered the statutes related to sexual harassment. She said HB 489 will “take away one of the last avenues of redress in this state.”

A similar bill, SB 65, has resided on the Senate informal perfection calendar after facing opposition on the floor. 

Update: The Missouri House passed the bill with a 93-58 vote on Wednesday.