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Parson signs punitive damages bill


Gov. Mike Parson signed a bill bringing sweeping changes to how punitive damages are assessed in Missouri Wednesday. 

SB 591, which grew to be a controversial omnibus bill in the General Assembly, tackled a myriad of provisions related to punitive damages, from adding steps to the filing process to codifying in state statute that a plaintiff must prove a case by “clear and convincing evidence.” It made changes to insurance agreements and malpractice cases as well as reformed the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA). 

Additionally, the bill altered provisions related to medical malpractice.

“Protecting Missouri businesses and equipping them with the tools to succeed has always been a priority of my administration,” Parson said in a statement. “I am proud to sign SB 591, which will stop the unfair and unreasonable litigation our businesses face. This bill shows that Missouri is open for business and strikes a fair balance between protecting Missouri employers and employees from frivolous claims while ensuring the ability of those harmed to seek relief in court.”

Parson held ceremonial bill signings at Discovery Design Truck & Manufacturing in St. Peters and Positronic Industries in Springfield Wednesday. 

Republican state Sen. Bill White sponsored the legislation. State Rep. Bruce DeGroot, who handled the legislation on the House side, was on hand for the signing. 

“This bill is good for business and good for Missouri,” DeGroot, a Republican, said. “Punitive damages developed in the law as a way to punish wrongdoers. Unfortunately, over the years, threats of huge punitive damages awards became a tactical ploy to make trial lawyers rich and punishment was doled out to people and businesses who made simple mistakes but didn’t try or want to hurt anyone.” 

“Or, worse yet, businesses were punished for mistakes of their employees when the business owner had nothing to do with it,” he said. “This was punishment without purpose except financial gain.” 

As it grew in the Missouri Legislature, SB 591, garnered the nickname “the son of Franken-tort” by one legislator. 

“Punitive damages were a very special, and until recently, a very rare subset of damages in civil cases and is not intended to compensate the aggrieved person,” White, a lawyer from Joplin, said during floor debate. 

“Mere negligence, even gross negligence, is not grounds for punitive damages. Those are compensatory damages. This focus on punitives is not the recovery of the injured person; it is the punishment of the person that is doing the perpetration of the issue,” he said. 

Democratic state Sen. Scott Sifton opposed the bill on the floor, pointing to the ongoing global health crisis

“This is not the time to be taking consumer protections away from Missourians with COVID-19,” he told The Missouri Times in May. “With the state’s attorney general cracking down on folks for consumer deception practices right now, we don’t need to make it harder to make those cases stick. I feel like SB 591 sends us in the wrong direction on consumer protection.” 

DeGroot teased legislation he plans to file next year as there are “additional steps to be taken” when it comes to “leveling the playing field in Missouri courts.”

“We thank Governor Parson for his leadership on tort reform issues as we all strive for a fair and balanced court system,” said AIM CEO and President Ray McCarty in a statement. “We applaud his signature of this very important bill today,”

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