JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Business groups are praising a bill under consideration in the Missouri Senate that would restrict when people can join together to sue over injuries.
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The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer, of Odessa, said the proposal would "keep a lot of lawsuits out of St. Louis," a city seen by many businesses as having judges and juries overly sympathetic to the people suing them.
The proposal passed the House March 15 in a 104-47 vote, prompting an upbeat statement from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce.
"St. Louis courts have a national reputation as being plaintiff-friendly," it said. "This legislation would end that practice and help address Missouri's perennial status atop lists of the nation's worst legal climates."
Karen Buschmann, a spokeswoman for the chamber, singled out several recent lawsuits as examples, including one case against Johnson & Johnson. Only two of the 61 people suing the company lived in Missouri and Johnson & Johnson is based in New Jersey, but a judge ruled the case could be heard in St. Louis because Johnson & Johnson hired a company in Union, Missouri, to distribute some of its products. The ruling upheld a jury's $110.5 million verdict for a woman from Virginia who claimed the company's talcum powder caused her to develop ovarian cancer.
Currently in Missouri, if multiple people are hurt by the same person or business, they can file what's known as a "joinder claim." The injuries might have happened in different locations or on different days, but if there is enough of a connection the individuals can sue together.
Those joining together to sue have some flexibility over where they file. If the people suing were hurt in multiple locations, they can choose which county to file in.
"It's expensive to do a case on your own against a multi-billion-dollar global corporation," said Brett Emison, a personal injury lawyer who works with The Missouri Trial Lawyers Association and who supports the current law.
St. Louis judges and juries abide by the same laws as everyone else, he said, and shouldn't be shunned.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce regularly surveys businesses on how well they believe they're treated by state courts. In 2017 Missouri was ranked 49th out of 50 states for businesses facing injury claims.
If the bill becomes law, the fact that a company's product hurt multiple people at multiple times would not alone justify the plaintiffs joining in one lawsuit. Each person would have to live in the same county, or would have to be hurt in the same way in the same place. If multiple people were hurt outside of the state, they would likely also have to file separate lawsuits.
Some exceptions would be made for Missouri residents living in many of the state's smaller counties.
Many lawmakers expressed concern that, if the system is changed, smaller counties in the state will have trouble absorbing new cases and that Cole County, where some out-of-state lawsuits would be directed, is already backlogged.
"In order to keep 'em out of St. Louis we're going to make three parties that have never been to Cole County file their complaint in Cole County?" asked Democratic Rep. Gina Mitten, of St. Louis.
Lawmakers also said the restrictions could make it harder to hold companies accountable for misdeeds.