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Senate’s punitive damages bill doesn’t move … for now


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A massive bill that would “fundamentally change” how punitive damages are assessed in Missouri stalled in the Senate after a nearly four-hour debate Tuesday. 

Aside from dissenting opinions over how punitive damages should be handled, it was the sheer magnitude of Republican Sen. Bill White’s SB 591 that gave lawmakers pause. Dubbed the “Son of Franken-tort” by one legislator, the bill started Tuesday at nine pages but grew to nearly 50 by the time it hit senators’ floor desks that afternoon. 

The omnibus bill 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 changed provisions related to insurance agreements and malpractice cases as well as reformed the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA). 

State Sen. Bill White

White argued the line between punitive and compensatory damages has blurred over the years, and the threshold for pursuing such claims has been lowered “to the point where the filing seems to be almost standard with some attorneys.”

“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. 

“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,” White continued. 

Sen. Scott Sifton, a lawyer from the St. Louis area, held court on the Senate floor for the majority of Tuesday’s debate as he went through the bill line-by-line. 

“It is already harder to get punitive damages than compensatory damages in Missouri’s courts,” the Democratic senator said. “The question becomes: How much harder do we want to make it?” 

Punitive damages are awarded by a court when a defendant’s conduct is determined to be especially egregious or intentional. They are awarded as a deterrent or punishment for the defendant. 

Sifton also argued the changes could result in cases taking longer to settle. 

State Sen. Scott Sifton

“Early settlement is good policy in my opinion because we want to compensate victims. We want to hold perpetrators accountable,” Sifton said. “We’re doing it for the parties, not for the lawyers.” 

From its time in committee, the bill received pushback from the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA). 

“There has been so much tort reform over the last 20 years that they have been slowly but surely chipping away at our rights under the Seventh Amendment that when you look at this bill and other bills that have been brought up in committees already, there are no small tort bills left,” MATA President Brett Emison told The Missouri Times. 

“From the beginning, our position — and my position — is why is the state of Missouri and our legislature changing this public policy in order to protect the very worst of the worst corporations? We aren’t talking about negligence here; we’re talking about malicious conduct tantamount to intentional wrongdoing.” 

The bill, which was up for perfection, was ultimately laid over after nearly four hours of debate. 

Before debate ended, Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden said he hoped Tuesday’s floor activity could “lay the groundwork for future discussions” so the Senate “can have a really robust but very sincere conversation as to how we can collectively work together” on the issue. 

“I’m excited to watch this thing develop as we move forward,” Rowden said. 

Similar GOP-backed measures tackling punitive damages failed to make it through the General Assembly last year.