JEFFERSON CITY - Business was booming at the state Capitol Wednesday.
The Republican-controlled legislature sent fundamental changes to Missouri's workers' compensation law and new limits on lawsuit awards, two measures long sought by business interests, to the desk of Gov. Matt Blunt in a flurry of action before the body's spring break, which begins Thursday.
Blunt promised both changes during his campaign last fall. He argues they're necessary to make Missouri more attractive to businesses, a claim disputed by Democrats, who describe them as handouts to business owners that will come at the expense of the state's workers.
The changes to the workers' comp system would narrow the number of injuries that qualify. Benefits would be awarded only when a job is deemed to be the "prevailing" cause of injury. Heart attacks at the workplace or car accidents while driving in a company car would not qualify.
It would also increase the burden of proof placed on workers who claim injury and step up the scrutiny given to the system's judges.
The lawsuit limits would cap awards for pain and suffering at $350,000 in medical malpractice cases. It would also limit putative damages to $500,000 or five times the amount given the plaintiff, except in cases where there was a felony involved or the state is the plantiff.
Republicans say the changes are necessary to reduce the number of frivolous cases that end up in litigation. They say the costs scare businesses and doctors away from Missouri and tout the new laws as ways to make the state more friendly to businesses and bring down the cost of insurance for doctors.
"We need to do anything we can to keep jobs in the state of Missouri," said Rep. Bryan Pratt (R-Jackson County).
Democrats complain the new work comp law puts too much pressure on legitimately injured workers and disagree with the Republican argument for lawsuit limits.
"This is a cover to rewrite the rules to help big business and big tobacco," Rep. John Burnett (D-Jackson County).
Both measures have long been on the wish list of Republican lawmakers and the business lobby.
"I've had three kids and I've been married," said Sen. John Loudon (R-St. Louis County), sponsor of the workers' comp bill. "But this ranks up there as one my more productive legislative days."
Workers compensation law provides payments for medical care and lost wages to workers who are injured on the job.
In addition to reducing the number of injuries that qualify for benefits, the bill would:
--Allow employers to make their employees use vacation or sick days to be tested for injury.
--Disqualify a worker fired for "post-injury misconduct" from receiving compensation.
--Reduce the amount a worker can collect if they are injured while in violation of safety regulations.
--Reduce the fees lawyers for injured workers can collect.
--Require a strict interpretation of the workers' comp laws and place the burden of proof on the injured employee.
--Increase the number of workers' comp judges to from 26 to 40 and create a review process that would allow for a panel to vote judges off the bench. Workers' comp judges now serve for life.
Besides setting new limits on legal awards the lawsuit bill would prevent plaintiffs from "shopping" venues by limiting court action to the location of the injury or wrongful act.
Former Democratic Gov. Bob Holden vetoed similar measures in each of the past two years.
Legislation limiting lawsuit awards is sometimes known as "tort reform."