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House debates bill to change civil liability

February 15, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

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

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

Byrd said the provisions were a necessary update to the system and would cut insurance rates while increasing the number of doctors in the state.

"Plaintiffs will use any mechanism possible in order to get their cases into what they consider to be a plaintiff-friendly venue," he 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 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 in cost of living increases into the cap for punitive damages.

Critics have said that the cap of punitive penalties protects businesses that willfully violate the law because it holds down penalties, but Byrd said the exceptions to the cap, including cases where the state of Missouri 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 City, said the lawmakers who supported tightening the venue guidelines were 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."

Gov. Matt Blunt has proposed a budget that would make significant cuts to both Medicaid and First Step, which has enjoyed support from much of House leadership. Medicaid is a combination of federal and state aid distributed to the poor, and First Step is a state program that provides aid for children with disabilities until age three.

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