JEFFERSON CITY – A bill aimed at rehabilitating Missouri’s reputation as a “judicial hellhole” and magnet for frivolous lawsuits passed the Missouri House of Representatives this month, but not before a GOP lawmaker and trial attorney tried to amend the measure they said was overkill.
Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer (R-Odessa) authored the bill, which was being debated in the Missouri Senate Government Reform Committee prior to the Missouri Legislature’s spring recess last week. Supporters say the bill would correct the problem of attorneys joining cases involving out-of-state issues with a single plaintiff in the St. Louis area so the cases can be tried in a venue perceived as plaintiff-friendly.
Rep. Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City), an attorney who handles personal injury, consumer protection and criminal defense cases, called the bill that emerged from the House a scam in a recent opinion article.
“Like a shady car dealer trying to sell you a lemon, the proponents are relying on the fact that some buyers won’t look into the details…” he said. “They say one thing, but their true goal is something else – it takes away the rights of ordinary citizens just like you.”
Although Barnes concedes that out-of-state plaintiffs who are wronged outside the state by out-of-state defendants should not have their cases heard in Missouri courts, he said the Republican supporters of the bill overreached and that Missouri residents will see their legal rights curtailed if the bill becomes law.
Although Barnes did not respond to requests by the St. Louis Record for an interview, an article he authored on his website said the bill’s original language could limit Missouri residents’ rights in two ways.
In one scenario, it would bar an in-state plaintiffs from suing two Missouri defendants in a single filing. Because the plaintiff would be forced to file two lawsuits to achieve justice, the result would be higher costs and inefficiencies, Barnes said.
A second problem would be the case of multiple plaintiffs in different Missouri counties filing suits against a single corporate defendant who sold each of them a defective product. Under the original language in Kolkmeyer’s bill, this group of similar lawsuits could not be joined into a single suit against the defendant, thereby requiring multiple lawsuits to be filed in multiple counties and clogging the court system, according to Barnes.
Barnes offered an amendment to fix what he viewed as the two problem areas, but ultimately the bill that passed the House contained a substitute amendment that only addressed the issue involving multiple defendants.
“Yes, the bill has kind of been a work in progress,” Kolkmeyer told the St. Louis Record.
He said he is comfortable with the current version of the bill, which passed the House 100 to 54. The key problem that the bill fixes, he said, is ending the practice of plaintiffs overloading the St. Louis court system with cases that have little or nothing to do with Missouri.
“St. Louis has become the nation’s courtroom,” Kolkmeyer said.
A 2016 report by the American Tort Reform Association rated the city of St. Louis the nation’s No. 1 judicial "hellhole." The filings in St. Louis increased from 3,000 in 2014 to more than 12,000 in 2015, according to the Office of State Courts Administrator. In 2016, the number of plaintiffs involved in St. Louis cases that had nothing to do with Missouri stood at 8,400, the association said.
“It costs every Missouri taxpayer money in taxes to support this court system,” Kolkmeyer said.
The state’s business leaders have not said much about the issue, the lawmaker said, but he has heard from other lawmakers in the northern part of the state who complain when their judges are required to travel to St. Louis to help with the overburdened docket. The legislation is aimed at addressing the taxpayer costs of such inefficiencies, Kolkmeyer said.
Among the supporters of the Kolkmeyer bill, HB 460, is the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), Brad Jones, who told the St. Louis Record that even though state businesses may not be directly affected by venue shopping by out-of-state attorneys, they are among the taxpayers footing the bill for the judiciary in St. Louis.
“We’ve got all these outside cases, and we’re paying for that,” Jones said.
Barnes’ attempt to amend the bill in the House did not surprise him.
“Jay has been rather consistent in his opposition to tort reform issues,” Jones said.
The state director said he tries to work with everyone on such reforms, even though Barnes’ views often don’t match those of tort reform supporters.
Jones said he has not seen so many tort reform bills under discussion in the state legislature before.
“It’s the greatest hits of tort reform,” he said. “We’ve got them all introduced in Missouri right now.”
Generally, attorneys see small businesses as cash cows, and the tort reform measures being proposed, including one calling for better scrutiny of expert witness testimony, help to address this, Jones said.
“Our members, they’re just one lawsuit away from losing their business,” he said. “We’re asking for a little bit of a level playing field from a legal standpoint.”
As more out-of-state cases are pouring into Missouri, the state’s public defenders are overloaded, putting stress on the entire system, Jones said.
Although HB 460 passed with strong Republican support, Barnes was among nine GOP lawmakers in the House voting against it. Legal interests figured prominently in Barnes’ campaign contributions in 2016, according to records on file at the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Barnes received $1,000 from the Morrissey Law Firm P.C. in Springfield; $1,500 from the Springfield-based Placzek Winget & Placzek firm, which handles personal injury and workers compensation cases; $500 from attorney Patrick Richardson of Kirksville; $750 from Angle Wilson Law LLC of Columbia; $1,250 from trial attorney M. Blake Heath of Kansas City, Mo.; $500 from attorney Paul Bullman of St. Louis; $3,000 from the Simon Law Firm P.C. of St. Louis; $1,500 from the Redfearn Law Firm of Independence; $5,000 from St. Louis firm Schmickle, Wohlford, Morris & Kusmierczak, which specializes in personal injury and asbestos-related lawsuits; and $500 from the Law Office of R. Brent Hankins P.C.
Also supporting HB 460 is the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which sees the bill as one component of overall tort reform. But like the NFIB, the chamber’s arguments focus on reducing court costs rather than addressing perceived harm to businesses.
“Ridding our state court system of far-flung lawsuits will reduce costs and help Missouri courts operate more efficiently, allowing them to focus on Missouri-related legal disputes,” Brian Bunten, the chamber’s general counsel and director of legislative affairs, said.