With governor's backing, GOP aims for stronger tort bill

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With the threat of a gubernatorial veto no longer hanging over them, key Republican lawmakers are pursuing a more expansive overhaul of Missouri's civil litigation system than proposed in recent years.

State Rep. Richard Byrd, the issue's point man in the House of Representatives, said Republicans compromised on numerous provisions of so-called tort reform bills in 2003 and 2004 in an attempt to win support from then governor Bob Holden, a Democrat. Holden vetoed both bills, saying they would have insulated businesses from lawsuits brought by injured parties.

Since new Gov. Matt Blunt is a strong proponent of tort reform, however, his fellow Republicans who control both chambers of the Missouri Legislature are pursuing a stronger bill. A tort is a wrongful act that causes injury.

As with past tort measures, supporters surrounded themselves with physicians as they discussed the bill during a Capitol news conference on Wednesday. Medical groups claim lawsuits and big monetary awards are the driving factor behind skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance premiums. Doctors say the insurance costs are forcing many medical providers to cease performing high-risk procedures or quit practicing altogether.

"Hopefully, these changes will bring about dramatic reductions in the premiums that physicians are paying," said Byrd, R-Kirkwood.

Byrd is offering a companion insurance reform bill but offered few details as to what it contains. Identical versions of both bills are to be filed in the Senate today by state Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City.

The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, which opposes the tort bill, says the measure is sweeping in its scope and would tilt Missouri's civil justice system in the favor of wealthy corporate interests.

"This legislation is dangerous because it can expose Missourians to more accidents and injuries of all sorts and puts a strait jacket on their ability to get fair compensation," said MATA president Gary Robb, a Kansas City lawyer. "The bill goes a long way toward making defective products and services profitable in Missouri because taking that approach is less expensive than the penalties."

Liability concerns

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Dan Mehan endorsed the bill as vital to improving the state's business climate.

A major component of the tort bill would eliminate "joint and several liability," a centuries-old legal doctrine intended to ensure that the needs of the victim are put above those of who cause harm.

In general terms, joint and several liability holds a defendant only partially at fault responsible for all monetary damages if the defendant primarily at fault is financially insolvent. Detractors of the doctrine say it is unfair for defendants to pay more than their share of damages.

Last year's version of the bill would have created modified joint and several liability, under which defendants would be responsible for another party's share of damages if it was less than their own. A similar system is currently applied to medical malpractice cases.

Another key provision aims to end "venue shopping," the practice of filing cases in jurisdictions where juries have a plaintiff-friendly reputation. The bill would require a case to be brought in the judicial circuit where the alleged injury took place.

The bill would also restore a statutory cap on pain and suffering damages that was effectively undone by a 2002 court decision that allowed multiple caps for a single incident. The measure would allow a single $250,000 cap that wouldn't be annually adjusted for inflation as current law requires.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said the chamber is committed to passing both the civil litigation and insurance bills.

"Tort reform and medical malpractice insurance reform will go a long way to reduce premiums, provide a stable practice environment and help to retain and attract jobs in the state," Jetton said.

The bills are HB 393 (tort) and HB 394 (insurance.)

mpowers@semissourian.com

(573) 635-4608

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