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Punitive damages bill clears General Assembly

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri General Assembly has approved legislation bringing sweeping changes to how punitive damages are assessed. 

SB 591, a controversial omnibus bill, tackles 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 changes provisions related to insurance agreements and malpractice cases, as well as reforms the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA). The bill also alters provisions relating to medical malpractice and accessibility of library records. 

“This is really good legislation,” the bill’s handler in the House, Rep. Bruce Degroot, told The Missouri Times. “I am proud of our House members and proud of the Senators who worked so hard to make this bill a reality. I view it as an economic stimulus which comes with a $0 price tag.”

“SB 591 returns the requirements for a punitive damages case to its original intent and modifies the procedures for [bringing] such a claim to ensure that such claims for punitive damages are grounded in facts,” Sen. Bill White, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “The bill also does not inhibit a valid claim for punitive damages.”

The bill was truly agreed and finally passed (TAFP) by the House with a vote of 98-51. It passed the Senate in early March. 

Sen. Scott Sifton, who raised concerns about the bill during a lengthy Senate debate in February, said he’s “obviously disappointed to see” the bill TAFP’d Tuesday morning. In particular, Sifton critiqued the changes made to the MMPA. 

“This is not the time to be taking consumer protections away from Missourians with COVID-19. 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,” Sifton told The Missouri Times. “I feel like SB 591 sends us in the wrong direction on consumer protection.” 

“In respect to punitive damages, I did disagree with the bill on the matter of policy,” he added. “We had a thorough debate in the Senate on that language … but I still think that the punitive damages provisions will make it harder to hold wrongdoers accountable in Missouri, and that’s unfortunate.” 

The bill did have the backing of Associated Industries of Missouri President and CEO Ray McCarty and attorney Rich Aubuchon, who leads the Missouri Civil Justice Reform Coalition.

“The process for determining punitive damages, those awarded above and beyond actual damages, has warranted revision for a very long time,” McCarty said. “Punitive damages are not proper in every case and should be reserved for cases in which the defendant has intentionally caused harm. At the very least, punitive damages should not be alleged in every case.” 

Aubuchon added: “SB 591 is the most comprehensive change in law for punitive damages and [MMPA] that our legislature has passed.” 

“Passage of SB 591 will go a long way to balancing the scales for all parties involved to reshape to reshape how we think of and use punitive damages in litigation, and for the first time ever, to require the plaintiff to show they relied upon a false statement in [MMPA] cases.” 

After it’s signed by the House speaker and Senate president pro tem, the bill will head to the governor. 

Kaitlyn Schallhorn contributed to this report. 

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