Missouri House votes to limit lawsuits against bankruptcy trusts in asbestos illness cases

The Missouri House has voted to limit the ability to file lawsuits against bankruptcy trusts in cases of asbestos-related illness.

Representative Bruce DeGroot (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Bruce DeGroot (R-Chesterfield) said plaintiffs who sue solvent companies for an asbestos-related illness and are awarded money by a jury often then file claims against bankruptcy trusts for the same health issues – what he called “double dipping.”  His legislation, House Bill 1645, would give plaintiffs 30 days from filing suit against a solvent company to disclose any potential claims against a bankruptcy trust.

DeGroot said the bill aims to protect bankruptcy trusts, which compensate those injured by defunct companies, and have finite resources.

“Once that money is depleted it’s gone, and if we are allowing the system as it currently stands to go on, what we’re doing is allowing those trusts to be depleted at a much quicker rate than what they should be,” said DeGroot.  “Who this of course truly affects is that guy standing at the end of the line … by the way, we don’t even who those people are at this point, but by the time they get up and they’re ready to make their claim against the bankruptcy trust, that money won’t be in effect any longer.”

Jefferson City Republican Jay Barnes said current law already allows defendants in these cases to prevent “double dipping” by claimants.  He argued that it could take claimants longer than 30 days to know whether they have a claim against a trust, and under DeGroot’s bill many sick with mesothelioma would die before they could get to a trial.

He also said DeGroot’s bill would do the opposite of protecting bankruptcy trusts.

Representative Jay Barnes (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Under current law a claimant is not required to file a trust claim … they don’t have to take any assets from a trust under current law.  And [Representative DeGroot], who says his bill is to protect trust assets, requires them to make claims from these trusts,” said Barnes.  “Under current law there is a situation where there could be zero claim against the trust and if this bill passes, every person who has a claim against a trust must make a claim against a trust it does the exact opposite of what [Representative DeGroot] says is the purpose of the bill.”

Representative DaRon McGee (D-Kansas City) said the concept that individuals who pursue claims against trusts after suing solvent companies is double dipping is a “myth.”

“If four defendants are responsible for an injury and you sue two solvent defendants and are forced to pursue the other two through trusts, this is not ‘double dipping.’  You’re getting the full dip that you’re entitled to,” said McGee.

Kansas City Republican Kevin Corlew said the bill would allow plaintiffs to pursue claims against trusts in a more efficient way while at the same time pursuing cases against solvent companies.

“It’s often not the plaintiff’s fault that this information isn’t brought forth, it’s the plaintiff’s lawyers who are trying to make sure that they get recovery here and then make sure that they get recovery later through the system.  All this is saying is seek recovery at the same time,” said Corlew.

The House voted 96-48 to send the bill to the Senate, which is considering its own version of the proposal.

Missouri Legislature proposes tougher standard for employment discrimination

The legislature has sent Governor Eric Greitens (R) a bill that would make it harder to prove discrimination in the workplace.

Representative Joe Don McGaugh (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Joe Don McGaugh (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Senate Bill 43 would require a former employee to prove that his or her age, race, gender, disability or ethnicity was the main reason he or she was fired rather than one among other reasons.  Republicans said the bill is needed because the courts have allowed too many cases of alleged workplace discrimination to proceed.

The House’s handler of SB 43, Representative Joe Don McGaugh (R-Carrollton), said the legislation responds to Supreme Court decisions that lowered the standard in employment discrimination cases.

“Senate Bill 43, in my opinion, isn’t even tort reform.  It’s undoing judicial activism,” said McGaugh.  “So what’s the effect of the court playing legislature?  Even the most meritless cases have to be decided by a jury.  Employers are required to spend thousands of dollars defending completely baseless claims brought by lawyers arguing anything that can contribute.”

The bill also places limits on the damages that can be awarded to successful plaintiffs, exempts from liability supervisors and managers who are not employers, and limits protections for whistleblowers.

The legislation cleared the House on a Republican-led 98-30 vote, but it had Republican opposition.

Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City) spoke against the measure’s whistleblower section.

“The proponents have not identified a problem with whistleblower law in the State of Missouri.  There is not a spate of whistleblower cases in this state,” said Barnes.  “The whistleblower portion eliminates protections for the employees most likely to know about illegal activity in their employer.”

Democrats said the legislation would make it easier for workplace discrimination to occur and go unpunished, and argue it represents a conflict of interest because its senate sponsor, Senator Gary Romine (R-Farmington), is the owner of a business that is the subject of a pending discrimination lawsuit.

Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (left), talks about SB 43 with Republican colleague Nate Tate (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Bruce Franks, Junior (left), talks about SB 43 with Republican colleague Nate Tate (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Louis Representative Bruce Franks, Junior, read a series of racial slurs cited in that case and called the bill unacceptable.

“We’ve heard time and time again how this sets us back.  All of the forward movement we’ve done, this sets us back,” said Franks.

McGaugh said the legislation has been filed for years, long before there was a case against Romine’s company.

“If you’ve been in this body more than one year you’ve voted on this multiple times,” said McGaugh.  “Everything that we’re going to talk about today this body has seen before and we’ve talked about before.”

The House debated the bill for more than five hours Monday, rejecting five amendments, before voting to pass the bill the Senate had proposed.  It’s now up to Governor Grietens whether it will become law.