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Missouri House passes bill making it easier for companies to fight asbestos lawsuits

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri House.

The Missouri House has passed legislation designed to reduce the number of asbestos lawsuits filed in the state.

The bill would require plaintiffs to submit their medical histories as evidence, including things not related to their claim. It would also make it easier for defendants to seek delays, and, if they lose, it would allow them within a year’s time to ask a judge for a reversal under certain conditions.

“Right now we are known as the Sue-Me State, not the Show-Me State — the Sue-Me State,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield. “This bill protects our people — nobody wants to do business in the state of Missouri, because every time our businesses get sued, they get creamed.”

The measure is part of a continued push by Republican lawmakers and Gov. Eric Greitens to make it harder to sue large corporations and small-business owners, known in the legal community as tort reform.

“Right now, the Johns Mansville’s, the Owens-Corning’s — those people are all bankrupt,” DeGroot said on the House floor. “You know who the plaintiffs’ attorneys are going after now? They’re going after mom-and-pop stores in the districts that you represent.”

Credit Bruce DeGroot campaign
Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield.

Opponents on both sides of the aisle called the bill cruel, saying it would result in some asbestos victims dying before receiving justice. Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, began his criticism by imitating the breathing of someone with mesothelioma. After being gaveled to stop, he said he was actually impersonating the Missouri House suffocating the constitutional rights of its citizens.

“These are people who have dedicated their lives to our service in the military, for the police force, for firefighters, construction workers, school teachers in dilapidated buildings,” Ellebracht said. “I hope that you can sleep at night, without mechanical assistance, as so many people who will suffer and die from mesothelioma require.”

Republican Jay Barnes of Jefferson City, who’s an attorney, also criticized the bill. Using firefighters as an example, he said they would have to prepare claims against the owners of every possible site where they could have been exposed to asbestos and do so within 30 days of filing suit.

“How can they know that? They don’t know where the asbestos came from,” Barnes said.

For those who discover they have a disease caused by asbestos, Barnes said they sometimes only have three to six months to live from that point.

Credit Tim Bommel | Missouri House Communications
Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City.

“They can’t necessarily do all of the legwork needed to file suit before they die, and when they die, the evidence of where they were exposed dies with them,” he said. “They suffocate to death and are never able to have their day in court against the companies who poisoned them.”

But Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, said the current system is unfair because it allows asbestos plaintiffs to seek 100 percent damages from each possible place they could have been exposed. Corlew and other supporters say the bill would set up a system in which a case with multiple defendants would result in those defendants equally sharing the burden of paying damages.

The bill passed 96-48, with several Republicans joining Democrats in voting “no.” It now goes to the Missouri Senate.

Follow Marshall on Twitter:@MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.