House bill seeks limits on punitive damages

Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:34 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri House debated a measure Tuesday that would limit the awards Missourians can expect in civil cases.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Richard Byrd, R-St. Louis County, would cap most punitive damages at $250,000 or three times economic damages awarded in the case, whichever is higher. It would also limit the trial venue to the location of the injury, unless the injury occurred outside the state.

“Plaintiffs will use any mechanism possible in order to get their cases into what they consider to be a plaintiff-friendly venue,” Byrd said.

Rep. Brian Burnett, D-Jackson County, said the measure would be more effective at shielding large drug companies from liability than cutting the insurance rates of family doctors.

“It does not provide the relief to our doctors and the relief to our judicial system that it set out to do,” Burnett said. “This bill focuses not (on) our family doctors, but this bill focuses on big drug companies.”

House Democrats were largely unsuccessful in their attempts to modify the provisions of the law via floor amendments, one of which would have factored cost of living increases into the cap for punitive damages.

Critics have said the cap onpunitive penalties protects businesses that willfully violate the law because it holds down penalties, but Byrd said there are exceptions to the cap, including cases in which the state is the plaintiff or the defendant commits a felony.

Proponents of the bill said many of the state’s civil cases are heard in St. Louis and Jackson County because plaintiffs take advantage of the existing law to “venue shop” for the courts that award the highest damages. Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Jackson County, said it was unfair for the residents of his district to judge the cases of people who aren’t from his county and were not injured in his county.

But Rep. Connie Johnson, D-St. Louis, said the lawmakers who support tightening the venue guidelines are acting under false assumptions that St. Louis residents were unqualified to serve on juries.

“No one seems to care about St. Louis when there are cuts to Medicaid,” Johnson said. “No one seems to care about St. Louis when we’re talking about First Step, but when we start talking about tort reform, when we start talking about venue, then everyone gets all worked up about the city of St. Louis.”

House leadership has indicated that a vote could occur as soon as today.

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