JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri lawmakers are trying to make it harder to sue for punitive damages.

In civil lawsuits, plaintiffs can sue for actual damages, which cover costs associated with injury or loss. Punitive damages, which aren’t directly tied to a tangible loss, go above and beyond that amount as punishment.

In a recent court case, for example, a Missouri peach farm sued the makers of the herbicide dicamba for damage caused to crops. The farm received $15 million in actual damages and $250 million in punitive damages. 

Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, sponsored Senate Bill 591, which went before the Senate on Monday afternoon. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 21-9.

White said that a loosening of standards related to punitive damages in recent decades was the driving force behind the legislation. 

This bill would put into law the standard of "clear and convincing" evidence of intentional harm or "deliberate and flagrant disregard for safety." Negligence won’t fall under this category, he said. Under the bill, plaintiffs can't sue for punitive damages right away in a trial, and will have to file a separate motion for punitive damages. Judges will look at evidence on both sides of the case and decide whether a punitive damages case is warranted.

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis, voted against the bill.

He noted that several changes were adopted after he was involved in a debate about the bill last week.

"I am less uncomfortable with where we are now," he said. "It’s in a better place than it was two weeks ago, but still not where I want it to be."

One of those changes impacted pending lawsuits. Only lawsuits filed after Aug. 28, when the bill would take effect, will see a change.

"It limits without any good reason the situation in which punitive damages can be claimed," Sifton said.

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, also expressed reservations about the bill. 

"My concern is that we're going to try to get in the way of people having their day and accessing their day in court," she said. 

The bill also puts into law the specific circumstances in which people can sue for damages for false advertising.  The bill still needs to pass the House. 

  • I'm an assistant city editor. This is my junior year at MU, where I study investigative reporting and political science. Interests include local journalism, breakfast food and good books. Email with any story tips.

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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