This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of The Missouri Times Magazine.
One of the top priorities of the Missouri Senate last session was passing SB 591 to make it more difficult to impose punitive damages on wrongdoers who acted with a “willful, wanton, or malicious culpable mental state … tantamount to intentional wrongdoing where the natural and probable consequence of the conduct is injury.” SB 591 also included language protecting businesses that defraud Missouri families.
Other tort bills which passed out of committee but failed to reach final passage included:
- A statute of repose to protect manufacturers of defective products
- Changes to R.S.Mo. § 537.065 making it harder for small businesses to protect their assets when an insurance company has wrongfully refused coverage under an insurance policy insured
- Changes making it more difficult for mesothelioma victims and their families to hold businesses accountable for asbestos exposure
- Limiting the amount of time an injured victim may file a lawsuit against the wrongdoer
- Reducing the amount of pre- and post-judgment interest to make it financially beneficial for a wrongdoer to engage in frivolous defenses in order to delay payment
- Immunity for businesses who needlessly expose employees and customers to COVID-19 by failing to follow recommended practices determined by health officials
Each of these bills protects wrongdoers at the expense of Missouri families. Each of these bills infringes on our fundamental constitutional right to trial by jury. Each of these bills violates the fundamental tenet in our society that a wrongdoer is responsible for the harms that result from their actions. Each of the tort bills filed last session would drastically undermine Seventh Amendment rights in order to protect wrongdoers.
Our founders understood the importance of the Seventh Amendment. Among the list of grievances given in the Declaration of Independence, many of us are familiar with: “For imposing taxes on us without our consent.” The very next grievance listed was: “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.” The Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial was included in the Bill of Rights because of its importance. In Missouri, our constitution requires that “the right of trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate.”
The Seventh Amendment, access to justice, an even playing field, and accountability are not partisan issues. Principled legislators from all parties can and should agree on the importance of the civil justice system.
Nevertheless, this fundamental right has been attacked again and again during our legislative sessions. Why? Who are these bills designed to protect?
These bills do not protect victims. These bills do not prevent frivolous lawsuits. These bills do not create jobs. These bills do not reduce costs.
Tort reform bills protect wrongdoers.
Tort reform bills protect wrongdoers at the expense of innocent victims and their families.
A partner at Langdon & Emison in Lexington, Brett Emison is the immediate past president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. He currently represents Missouri business owners whose insurance carriers have wrongfully denied coverage for business losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.