Missouri's tort reforms credited for decreased litigation

by Chris Rizo

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (Legal Newsline)-Missouri is less the hotbed of litigation than it was before state lawmakers passed landmark tort reform three years ago, a leading observer said Monday.

Michael Grote, legislative consultant for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Legal Newsline that the Show Me State’s legal climate has improved significantly since the state placed caps on damage awards, among other reforms, in 2005.

“The legal climate in Missouri has improved in terms of legal fairness,” Grote said in a telephone interview.

Missouri has gone from being ranked 34th to 31st in an annual comparison by Harris Interactive of states’ legal climates from the perspective of in-house corporate counsels around the nation, he noted.

“We’re still not in the top half of states with a fair legal climate, so there are still a lot of things that can be done,” Grote said.

While ensuring that injured parties have legal recourse, he cautioned policymakers to take care not to make the state’s legal system “so expansive that we create problems where they don’t exist, and force individuals to be responsible for others’ actions and activities.”

The state may climb a few more rungs in next year’s Harris rankings if state lawmakers pass legislation aimed at overhauling class-action lawsuits in the state, Grote said.

The proposal, outlined in House Bill 2241, would bar plaintiffs’ attorneys from creating classes of uninjured or unharmed individuals, particularly under the Missouri False Claims Act.

Grote said if enacted, the bill would build on the successes of the state’s 2005 tort overhaul.

Pending legislation would also address asbestos reform, something that proponents say is necessary given the state’s large manufacturing base.

He said lawyers are unfairly bringing suit against companies for classes of individuals exposed to asbestos, but not harmed by the toxic fibers.

“Individuals who have asbestos-related diseases in no way should be prevented from seeking redress for their injuries,” Grote said, adding that attorneys pursuing cases for people who might have been exposed but not injured harms those who were injured by asbestos exposure.

“It simply puts companies out of business and more importantly it erodes the trust funds that have been established for those individuals who were truly injured,” he said of the claims.

In terms of medical malpractice cases, Gov. Matt Blunt said recently that the medical malpractice against Missouri doctors has dropped 61 percent from 2005 to 2006, after enactment of the tort overhaul.

“We believe that tort reform has worked,” the Republican governor said at a press conference Thursday, noting that the reforms prevent lawsuits from “chasing doctors out of our state.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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