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Senate committees consider bills to limit liability

Missouri Capitol building

Missouri state capitol (Wikimedia Commons)

Two of the legislature’s top tort bills got hearings in the Missouri Senate last month— one an effort years in the making, the other to address a concern that this time last year was barely on the radar.

On Jan. 19, the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on two bills that would offer health care workers, manufacturers and businesses liability protections related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And on Jan. 21, the Senate Government Accountability and Fiscal Oversight held a hearing on a bill that would institute a statute of repose for products liability litigation, barring suits involving products that were placed in the stream of commerce more than 15 years prior.

The COVID liability bill was floated during last year’s regular session and got a hearing during a special session held late last year. Republican leaders in both chambers, along with business groups, have named it one of their top priorities for the year.

The committee considered similar bills from Sens. Bill White, R-Joplin and Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, both attorneys. Rich AuBuchon, a lawyer and lobbyist for Missouri Civil Justice Reform Coalition and other businesses, said the general idea was to insulate businesses from the fear that, by remaining open during the pandemic or offering products to help combat the disease, they might open themselves to litigation.

“The fact is businesses are hurting. It’s the fear, the fear on both sides,” AuBuchon said.

But Ken Barnes of the Barnes Law Firm in Kansas City, president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said Missouri has not faced an “epidemic of lawsuits” related to COVID-19. The suits that have been filed, he said, mostly are from businesses seeking insurance coverage for pandemic-related losses, which wouldn’t be affected by the proposed legislation.

“We don’t believe that in times of crisis we throw the constitution out the window,” he said.

The statute of repose bill has been proposed each year since at least 2016. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Holts Summit, filed a similar bill last year that cleared a Senate committee but never came up for debate. Another version won first-round approval in the House but didn’t receive a final vote.

“We must all agree that objects in our everyday lives cannot be expected to last forever, and thus we must not put an undue burden on our manufacturers, keeping them on the hook for something made half a century ago,” Riddle said.

The statute of repose bill also has the support of a wide array of business groups but faces opposition from MATA. Jeff Bauer of Strong-Garner-Bauer in Springfield, testifying for the trial attorneys group, noted that his own vehicle is more than 15 years old, and that the bill would prevent him from suing if he got in an accident and discovered that its airbag didn’t work.

Suits involving older machines, he said, “are not very frequent, but when they do happen, often it is a catastrophic injury.”

Riddle said the bill has been debated for years and that many concessions have been made in that time for trial attorneys’ concerns.

“The only people that have ever testified against this bill are trial attorneys, and if we have it in other states then I think they are in fear of not being able to line their pocketbooks further,” she said.

The COVID-19 bills are SB 42 and SB 51. The statute of repose bill is SB 7.

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