Missouri bill would limit lawsuits over lead contamination

Thursday, May 16, 2013 | 5:43 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri-based lead mining company could be shielded from punitive damages in state lead contamination lawsuits under a bill sent to Gov. Jay Nixon.

The measure passed late Wednesday night would exempt the Doe Run Resources Corp. from punitive damages if the court determines the company is making a "good faith" effort to clean up the contaminated sites. Otherwise, punitive damages would be capped at $2.5 million per lawsuit.

The company's potential liability stems from old lead mines in St. Francois County that Doe Run said it is working with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up . The mines ceased operations in 1972, before Doe Run was purchased by its current ownership. But people continue to sue the company, alleging lead contamination from the mining sites.

Under the legislation, Doe Run would be protected from large jury awards, such a 2011 decision in which a St. Louis jury awarded $320 million in punitive damages against Flour Corp., another lead company, for its role in pollution. Doe Run is currently the defendant in 11 lawsuits in St. Louis.

"We would not be able to afford those punitive damages," said Doe Run Vice President of Law Matt Wohl.

A 2005 Missouri law caps punitive damages at $500,000 or five times the amount of actual damages, whichever is higher. But many of the lawsuits against Doe Run were filed before those caps were put into place. Wohl is counting on the punitive damage exemptions and caps to apply retroactively to the cases against the company.

The measure — passed by the House 94-63 late Wednesday after it cleared the Senate 22-10 — would exempt lead mining companies from punitive damages at sites that stopped operating before January 1975, as long as the current owner is making "good-faith efforts to remediate such sites."

The bill would not limit other types of damages, such as the costs for medical treatment or lost wages.

Opponents argued the legislature would be setting up a special system for Doe Run that would not apply to other companies and lawsuits. They also were concerned about the seriousness of the lawsuits involving lead contamination.

"My concern is that we have pending litigation, and it is very serious litigation, because we are talking about children that have developmental disabilities because of their alleged exposure to these toxins," said Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.

Supporters countered that Doe Run was in a tough situation, because they purchased these mines from other companies after they had ceased operations.

"I don't want to set up some special thing either, but this is a unique company," said Sen. Ryan McKenna, D-Crystal City.

Wohl said he is hopeful the governor will sign the bill but declined to speculate about Doe Run's future in Missouri.

The Doe Run provision was tacked on to legislation that would also extend the expiration date on environmental permit fees collected by the Department of Natural Resources.

The fees are paid by business and municipalities to get permission from the department to dump wastewater into the state's rivers and streams. The department's ability to collect those fees would expire in September unless Nixon approves the legislation. The bill would extend the expiration date until September 2018.

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