Missouri asbestos claim reform bill moving forward, but supporters not sure if will pass all hurdles

By John Breslin | Apr 23, 2019

Proposed legislation aimed at reforming the way asbestos civil actions are dealt with in Missouri courts is moving forward and is scheduled to be debated in the Senate on Tuesday.

But those driving the legislation, Senate Bill 69, are not sure it will pass all votes and in both chambers as there remains only a month left in the legislative session.

SB69 states that plaintiffs suing in civil court must provide all information relating to any claim made to separate bankruptcy trusts set up to compensate those harmed by asbestos, many of whom suffer from mesothelioma.

Further, the bill allows defendants to object not later than 60 days prior to the trial date if they believe all information has not been provided.

Supporters characterize the bill as helping those harmed by protecting funds in bankruptcy trusts. Critics claim the proposals will allow defendants to delay the progress of suits to the point where the plaintiffs may be dead.

The bill, which passed the Government Reform Committee, is currently on the informal calendar, but will be debated and voted on "for perfection" on Tuesday. Changes will be introduced in the Senate on Tuesday,

But both the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Lincoln Hough (R-Springfield), and lobbyist Rich AuBuchon, representing the MIssouri Civil Justice Reform Coalition, which describes itself as a pro-business tort reform group, say that it is not clear that it will pass this year.

"There are several tort reform issues on the informal calendar and, as of now, I’m not sure which ones will receive floor time," Hough told the St. Louis Record.

AuBuchon, who is also helping to advance a bill in the House, said he remains hopeful the bill will pass but "we are in the last month of the session, and that late, it is about timing" with other pieces of legislation vying for advancement.

"It does not diminish its importance, but we might have to wait until it comes back next year," AuBuchon told the St. Louis Record.

Under current laws, a claimant can file for relief for asbestos-related injuries or diseases via an asbestos trust funded by companies that had to file bankruptcy because of pending and future claims and through civil actions.

But those supporting reform claim "double dipping" happens, and increasingly so. Claimants are filing claims to the trust, then taking action in civil action against other companies that remain solvent.

"What we are seeing in Missouri is an outgrowth of what Illinois saw, (that is) a proliferation of asbestos actions" in court, AuBuchon said.

The bill requires claimants to disclose claims they have filed with asbestos trusts when that same claimant is making a civil case, Hough told the Columbia Missourian newspaper, adding that it creates fairness for both  the claimant and businesses.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce, in a statement, said the bill "would allow for the fair allocation of fault and ensure plaintiffs receive fair compensation for their injuries, while not letting trial attorneys pursue multiple avenues of recovery."

"It would also prevent the depletion of limited trust fund resources so that future claimants will still be able to receive compensation," the chamber added.

However, Bart Baumstark, a St. Louis attorney who represents asbestos claimants, told the Columbia Missourian the bill is aimed at delaying court dates, and justice.

“What this bill does, is it allows (the court) to wait 60 days before a trial, and with the way it is written now they will absolutely get a continuance from that trial date. Now you senators may say to yourselves, ‘What’s one continuance?’ That’s the difference between life and death for our clients. … Fifty percent of our clients don’t make it to their trial date,” Baumstark said.

AuBuchon said the trust funds were set up to help those harmed and that the bill protects that money for future claimants that deserve to be adequately compensated.

He stressed that supporters of the bill are "not making the assertion that harmed individuals not be made whole."

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