JEFFERSON CITY — A key tort reform measure to stop out-of-state attorneys from trying their cases in Missouri has advanced in the state legislature, but a rift between the Republican governor and some GOP senators could leave the bill in limbo.
Timing may be everything for the bill as the General Assembly works to pass a budget and other legislative priorities before the session ends May 12, according to business attorney and lobbyist Richard AuBuchon.
“There are a lot of other priority bills scheduled for discussion as well,” AuBuchon told the St. Louis Record.
But AuBuchon said House Bill 460, which has passed the Missouri House and has gotten the green light from Senate committees, remains a key bill for those who favor tort reform.
“There’s a fair amount of litigation tourism here in Missouri,” AuBuchon said, adding that many out-of-state attorneys have been successful in establishing what they see as plaintiff-friendly venues in Missouri. The state’s court system has been host to thousands of parties who have no connection to Missouri, and that type of forum shopping would end if HB 460 is passed and signed by Republican Gov. Eric Greitens, he said.
But even though Greitens has expressed support for tort reforms and Republicans are in control of the state Senate, the fate of HB 460 in the current session remains a to be seen. James Atkins, a Jefferson City government affairs attorney for Husch Blackwell, which provides legal services to industry, said differences over ethics reform, tensions with the governor and the need to pass a state budget could sideline HB 460.
“A lot of the priorities are subject to the changing attitudes in the Senate from day to day,” Atkins told the Record.
If the budget, ethics reform, disputes with the governor and some other issues were removed from the picture, Atkins predicted that HB 460 would pass this year.
“A lot of folks in business communities have had their fill of trial attorneys taking advantage of Missouri rules,” he said. “If it gets a vote, I think it passes.”
HB 460, which is authored by Rep. Glen Kolkmeyer (R-Odessa), is now on the Senate’s Informal Calendar, meaning that the bill could be brought up for a full Senate vote at any time. Senate Republican spokeswoman Lauren Hieger told the Record that the Senate's priority this week would be work on the state budget, but the bill could come up for a vote in the final two weeks of the session.
A dispute between some Republican senators, notably Sen. Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph) and Greitens erupted in recent weeks over ethics reform, lobbying and campaign spending. Greitens’ use of the term “corrupt career politicians” has upset some members of the Senate, and Schaaf has called on Greitens to “disband the nonprofit (group) that you’ve set up to launder your secret contributions.”
Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys President Jay Benson, who has testified in the legislature about HB 460, said that the Missouri Supreme Court earlier this year addressed the issues outlined in the bill. In the case of Norfolk Southern Railway Co. v Dolan, the high court prohibited Missouri courts from taking up a case involving an out-of-state plaintiff suing an out-of-state defendant over personal injury issues that also occurred outside of Missouri.
“We think that this opinion addresses the motivation behind the filing of 460,” Benson told the Record.
In addition, he said that HB 460 hurts Missouri residents because it prohibits in-state plaintiffs from combining similar lawsuits.
Suppose that 42 farmers suffered harm by a corn seed distributor in Missouri that sold defective seed, Benson said. Under the bill, the farmers could not efficiently pursue the matter in a single lawsuit, and there might have to be 42 different trials.
Overall, Benson said the bill is overkill.
“It’s like going squirrel hunting with an elephant gun,” Benson said.
But businesses see the problem differently. The Missouri Chamber of Commerce earlier this month posted a list of 10 measures it urged the legislature to tackle before adjourning. At the top of the list was HB 460, which the chamber said was needed to stop the state court system from being needlessly burdened by trying cases that have little to do with Missouri.
“Missouri courts are notoriously hostile toward business,” the chamber said on its website. “The state’s legal climate regularly ranks among the worst in the nation. Out-of-state trial attorneys seek to capitalize on this status by having potentially lucrative cases moved to Missouri.”
AuBuchon emphasized that HB 460 would ensure that all individuals who file a lawsuit in Missouri would have to establish venue on their own merits. Out-of-state parties piggybacking on others to establish venue in Missouri would not be proper if the bill passes, he said.
“It’s an important bill to end litigation tourism in Missouri,” AuBuchon said.
“Generally, the business community as a whole in Missouri is anxious to see this type of tort reform measure pass,” he said.