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Missouri Legislature chips away at lawsuits with veto overrides

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JEFFERSON CITY • Three of Gov. Jay Nixon’s vetoes that were overridden by the Legislature last week could have benefited the Democratic governor’s biggest backers: trial lawyers.

The Republican-controlled Legislature voted to overrule Nixon, a Democrat, and pass laws that will limit some civil lawsuits over lead contamination, shield volunteer health care providers from civil judgments and restrict uninsured motorists’ lawsuits against insured drivers who cause car wrecks.

Combined, the new laws will effectively limit opportunities for court action and the often expensive payouts they can produce.

Sharon Jones, deputy director of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said legislation limiting plaintiffs’ lawsuits is reflective of trend that has stretched more than a decade here — new laws have tended to side in favor of business entities, rather than those injured by their activities.

Republicans ended the Legislature’s one-day veto session Wednesday with a historic 10 overrides, though they couldn’t muster the votes needed to fight off vetoes on their high-profile tax cut and gun rights legislation.

Still, some say they scored a key victory in overruling Nixon on legislation that chips away at a main adversary — trial lawyers who benefit from civil litigation and also happen to contribute heavily to Democratic candidates in Missouri.

“I consider every bill important — otherwise the governor wouldn’t have vetoed them,” House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said in a radio appearance a day after the veto session. He added that he considered bills that limit lawsuits to be “substantive bills.”

The votes limiting civil lawsuits and payouts could set the stage for further restrictions in future sessions – including a stronger push for larger tort reform measures.

Tim Jones has repeatedly listed medical malpractice lawsuit caps among his top legislative priorities. He frequently refers to the issue as “the real health care crisis in Missouri.”

The Legislature passed medical malpractice legislation in 2005, but the state Supreme Court struck down the law last summer. This year, the House approved a replacement bill, but it never made it through the Senate.

The tug-of-war between the GOP and trial lawyers isn’t unique to Missouri. Across the country, Republicans have sought to rein in high-dollar lawsuits against businesses. It’s reflective of a common political cycle: trial lawyers often back Democrats, and the businesses they target frequently back Republicans.

But Sharon Jones said the veto override of legislation last week that shields the Doe Run Co. from pricey lawsuits sets a political precedent for businesses that want to seek protection from litigation.

Going forward, she predicted, “We’ll see more single entities emboldened by what happened with Doe Run.”

In 2011, a St. Louis jury handed down a $320 million civil judgment to punish Herculaneum lead smelter Fluor Corp. for lead pollution.

Lawmakers this year said legislation was needed to protect Doe Run from similar action. Without it, they said, they worried that the company could close — eliminating more than 1,000 jobs in Missouri.

“This is not about not letting people seek restitution,” said Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. “It’s about putting some reasonable caps.”

The approved legislation will exempt the company from punitive damages related to rehabbed sites that closed before 1975 and cap other claims at $5 million.

In his veto message, Nixon said: “Contrary to the damage limits imposed by this provision, citizens should have fair and unfettered access to the courts.”

Doe Run and the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys had hired teams of lobbyists to work lawmakers on the bill. With the help from some area Democrats, the legislation got enough votes to overrule Nixon’s objections.

Nixon, who served as attorney general for 16 years, is closely aligned with the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, whose members have been major donors to his campaigns. His vetoes of bills limiting lawsuits provide a glimpse of his efforts to keep avenues open for people to settle disputes through civil courts.

According to an analysis from the National Institute of Money in State Politics, Nixon’s campaign received more than $3.1 million in contributions from lawyers in 2012 — about one out of every $4.50 that his campaign raised.

On the flip side, Tim Jones pulled in more than half of his $1.2 million campaign fund in 2012 from business sectors including energy, health care, banking and insurance, the Institute’s analysis shows.

In addition to the Doe Run bill, Republican lawmakers scored significant victories against trial lawyers with legislation that will shield doctors and nurses who volunteer their health services from lawsuits if something goes wrong. Another bill protects insured drivers who are responsible for car wrecks from having to pay damages to uninsured motorists.

“You’re going to have folks who are without fault in an accident who aren’t going to be able to recover those damages (from) the people who are responsible for the accident,” said Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis.

Supporters of the bill say it’s meant to ensure that drivers who haven’t kept legally mandated insurance on their cars don’t benefit from accidents, beyond getting their medical bills and other economic damages paid.

Lawmakers who spoke in favor of the bill argued that uninsured motorists are breaking the law, so they shouldn’t be able to sue someone driving legally.

Colona, a member of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, predicted that, “unfortunately,” the success of the Doe Run bill and others would encourage Republicans to push for more legislation reining in plaintiffs in the future.

“The pattern has been established,” he said.

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