JEFFERSON CITY — Having sparked controversy and an overnight debate on the Senate floor, Senate Bill 7, which would restrict the ability for multiple plaintiffs to sue jointly, is shaping up as the first major success for those who wish to limit lawsuits in Missouri.
The bill language incorporates a recent state Supreme Court ruling in State ex rel. Johnson & Johnson v. Burlison. The court ruled that if there is a lawsuit in a court, plaintiffs can only join if they have standing in that jurisdiction, such as living there or having been injured there.
While the court's decision sets a precedent for future judges to refer to, legislators seek to incorporate the decision into statutory law.
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, who has supported Senate Bill 7, said siding with the court decision is "the cleanest way" to shape the bill and to "take away the risk of the court later maybe changing its mind."
Robert Jerry, a law professor at MU, agreed that codifying the court's ruling "prevents the court from reversing its precedents in a future case raising the same issues."
Under the current law, plaintiffs can sue anywhere in Missouri as long as one of them has the standing to sue there, which is described by longtime lobbyist Rich AuBuchon, who frequently speaks in support of tort reform bills, as a loophole exploited by out-of-state plaintiffs to "hop a ride."
Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said plaintiffs both in and outside of Missouri are joining cases in the city of St. Louis, where they didn't reside or get injured.
"We're using taxpayer dollars to fund litigation that has no real nexus or connection to the city of St. Louis," Luetkemeyer said.
Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said during a press conference last week that the debate over joinder rules should have already been settled by the court's opinion. He said the decision has brought Missouri back to a "middle ground" where courts will not be "clogged up by out-of-state plaintiffs who are here where they are not supposed to be."
Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, expressed frustration with the court's decision but said once the court ruled, "our first order of business was to make sure that the bill didn't go any farther than the case did."
Beside including the court's decision, the bill specified that the restrictions also applied to suing insurance companies.
The bill would grandfather in joint cases that are already in process or close to a trial, but would limit future plaintiffs who wish to bring their claims under a single lawsuit against the same product or service arising out of the same series of transactions.
The bill has met staunch opposition from some Democrats. During its first House committee hearing, the bill drew ire from Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis.
Mitten questioned the bill's restriction on plaintiffs' ability to sue over the same product "failing in the same way" even if they are purchased separately.
Other opponents, such as Sifton, said current joinder rules allow lawsuits of the same nature to be bundled together and tried in an effective manner.
"My biggest concern with Senate Bill 7 was that it made it harder to be efficient about the process," Sifton said.
Sifton said he proposed three amendments, but only one made it through. His adopted amendment offers protection to out-of-state plaintiffs whose lawsuits are already filed in Missouri. Even after reaching the compromise, Sifton said he stands opposed to the bill.
Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said during a press conference Thursday that there has been abuse of Missouri's court system, but she thinks what the bill does is beyond just closing the loophole. Arthur said the bill limits Missourians' ability to hold corporations accountable.
"While (the bill) was watered down compared to previous years' versions," Arthur said, "it was much more expansive than just dealing with venue and joinder, and in my opinion there were some provisions ... that were major giveaways to, for example, insurance companies."
More tort reform bills down the road
Sponsored by a handful of Republican lawmakers, dozens of Senate and House bills proposing additional restrictions on how and when a lawsuit can be filed are moving down the pipeline.
Senate Bill 30, sponsored by Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, was the second tort reform bill to pass the Senate. The bill would admit failure to wear a seat belt as evidence when allocating plaintiffs' recoverable damages.
Several Republican lawmakers expressed confidence in the issue remaining of high priority in both chambers. Many of them are placed in critical positions to oversee the traffic flow of tort reform.
Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, sponsor of Senate Bill 7, chairs the senate Government Reform Committee, where most tort reform bills are heard. Other members on the committee, such as Sens. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, and Luetkemeyer, also carry similar bills.
In the House, Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, serves as the vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Litigation Reform, both of which are major venues for tort reform.
Labeling himself as "a tort reformer," DeGroot said he was elected and appointed to these positions to fix the problem. He alone is carrying five tort reform bills this year.
"Two years ago, the worst place on the planet to be in court (for businesses was) the city of St. Louis, Missouri," DeGroot said. When asked for proof, DeGroot referred to the "judicial hellhole" list published by the American Tort Reform Association.
DeGroot said plaintiffs win awards of hundreds of millions of dollars in Missouri, which he described as winning "the lottery." He said Missouri's judicial climate would deter businesses from coming to the state and therefore stifle the economy.
Rowden, who is the majority leader on the Senate floor, said Senate Bill 7 was the priority compared to other tort reform bills, most of which are laid aside for the time being.
"We were focused on venue ... we wanted to get that done," Rowden said. "I think you'll see a pretty healthy and steady dose of other tort bills post-spring break."
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit.