During this legislative session, the Missouri House and Missouri Senate have considered a number of so-called “tort reform” bills that flagrantly attack Missouri citizens’ constitutional right to trial while protecting out-of-state corporations that harm Missourians.
The Missouri Senate has been discussing SB 65 which is designed to protect the worst-of-the-worst corporations from being held accountable for punitive damages. Under the current law today, punitive damages are rarely sought even more rarely awarded. Reserved for the worst offenders, punitive damages may only be awarded if the defendant’s conduct willful or recklessly disregards the safety of others.
Under the law today, juries first determine if the defendant is responsible for the injuries and awards damages to compensate the victim for the harms and losses incurred. If the jury determines the defendant’s conduct was willful or reckless, then the jury hears additional evidence in a second-phase of trial and awards punitive damages to deter the defendant and similar defendants from engaging in similar willful or reckless conduct that harms the public. Punitive damages are essential in protecting the public against the worst corporations who would put profits ahead of public safety.
SB 65 would change the law to make it nearly impossible to corporations accountable for harming Missouri citizens and make it impossible to punish those that do.
This bill would make it nearly impossible to prove punitive damages and would prevent plaintiffs from even alleging punitive damages without the judge first granting approval to do so. Punitive damages would not be allowed if the jury awarded minimal damages.
But why should that decision be taken out of the hands of the citizens for whom the right to a trial-by-jury is guaranteed by the Constitution? One by-product of punitive damages in personal injury cases is that they currently make defendants change their behavior – we’ve written before on the positive impact that civil litigation has had on consumer safety.
Another bill, SB 100 would grant complete immunity to all product manufacturers once the product has reached 15 years old. Why the arbitrary number of 15? If we are truly embracing a free market system, why not allow the people to decide what is fair and what is just?
SB 100, called a “statute of repose” violates the fundamental tenant of society that someone who causes harm to another should be responsible for that harm. A statute of repose completely eliminates responsibility for defective products without any recourse for the victims. The statutory time period is completely arbitrary and is completely unrelated to the defective product. A statute of repose judges a defect toothbrush or cell phone on the exact same basis as a defect automobile or aircraft.
Under the current law already in place, an older product is not judged to be defective or not defective by comparison to today’s technology. An automobile (or aircraft for that matter) manufactured in 1995 is not judged against the technology in vehicles available today. A passenger car in 1995 could not be considered defective because it is not equipped with side-curtain airbags or driver assist technology that was not technologically feasible until years later.
Statutes of Repose hurt Missouri’s most vulnerable citizens. Statutes of Repose hurt children, the elderly, and middle-class Missourians struggling to get out of debt. These citizens are those most likely to be driving older (cheaper) vehicles that would be subject to a statute of repose. Should our State be punishing those Missourians who are driving older vehicles? Should Missouri force Missourians to purchase new vehicles based on an arbitrary timetable?
Statutes of repose also protect out-of-state corporations peddling defective products to innocent Missourians.
Statutes of repose hurt first responders who are often driving older equipment including fire trucks and patrol cars. Statutes of repose hurt farmers who cannot afford to replace heavy farm equipment based on the arbitrary timeline of the legislature. Statutes of repose hurt small business owners who cannot afford to retool a factory based on the arbitrary deadlines of politicians.
Our senators and representatives should be upholding constitutional rights including the 7th Amendment right to jury trial instead of protecting out-of-state corporations at the expense of our constitution. Contact your legislators and tell them to vote no on SB 65 and SB 100.