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Cynthia Reeves | SBJ

Legal Matters: Legislators intend to address employer vaccine mandates and tort reform in 2022 session

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As state legislators begin the 2022 session debating congressional redistricting, officials at the state and Springfield chambers of commerce remain hopeful that law-related priorities of their legislative agendas also will receive attention.

Tort reform, including liability issues and statute of limitation updates, as well as COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employers, are among top legal issues for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Kara Corches, the chamber’s governmental affairs vice president.

“Every session we work on a variety of civil justice or legal climate reform bills because it’s really important that we have a strong legal climate,” she said, noting the state chamber’s legislative agenda has over 70 recommendations for lawmakers.”

The state has made progress through recent legislative reforms, such as COVID-19 liability protections signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson last year. The legislation provides that an individual or organization cannot be held liable in a lawsuit by a person who blames them for exposure to COVID-19 unless that person can point to clear and convincing evidence of reckless or willful misconduct.

However, Corches said the legal climate in Missouri – the city of St. Louis, in particular – hasn’t had a very good reputation in recent years. Last year, St. Louis again made nonprofit American Tort Reform Foundation’s annual list of “judicial hellholes.” The organization said in its report the city’s circuit court “allows blatant forum shopping and awards excessive punitive damage awards.”

Corches said the financial impact of lawsuit abuse in Missouri is significant. Citing a study by economic research firm John Dunham & Associates, if additional legal reforms were enacted, the resulting savings to the residents and businesses in the state would be $1.7 billion. The savings from reforming the tort system would then support nearly 21,000 additional jobs and roughly $3.4 billion in increased economic activity.

On the agenda
In its 2022 legislative agenda, the state chamber advocates for updating the statute of limitations in certain civil cases, including personal injury claims for individuals and businesses.

“Missouri law provides plaintiffs with five years to file a claim. That is nearly double, if not more, than the time of almost every other state provides,” Corches said, noting 42 states allow three years or less.

The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce also wants to see that period shortened. Board member Brian Hammons, who also serves on the chamber’s legislative policy committee and is president and CEO of Hammons Products Co., said several bills have been filed on the subject.

“We want to provide some certainty, consistency and predictability,” Hammons said. “If someone is injured, once they know about it at a reasonable time, it seems to be something that should be certainly less than five years.”

Both chambers of commerce also want to eliminate joint and several liability. Current law allows joint and several liability to be applied if a defendant is 51% or more at fault. In that situation, the defendant is liable for the entire amount of the damages recoverable by the plaintiff. If found less than 51% at fault, the defendant is only responsible for the damages corresponding to their percentage at fault.

The state chamber wants a fair-share system of liability in which every defendant is liable only for the amount of harm they caused.

“We are all about a fair court system, but we need to make sure that our court systems and court laws are not just killing the business climate,” Corches said. “Businesses do look at the business climate of the state when they’re making those economic decisions to relocate or expand. We need to make sure that we’re competitive with other states.”

Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, has filed Senate Bill 821 on the issue. He said the governor’s office is strongly encouraging the bill as a priority for lawmakers, as it impacts Missouri’s legal defense fund whenever cases are filed against state employees.

“This is one of those things we can fix that would be fair and just and help rein in some of the heavy-handed lawsuits we experience in Missouri,” he said.

Another legal issue the state chamber wants addressed involves protecting innovators from unfair liability exposure. The chamber’s legislative agenda notes, for example, that manufacturers producing brand-name prescription drugs should not be held liable for actions of generic product makers.

“This goes beyond just prescription drugs. It’s for anyone who has invented something, and someone could copy their invention or make a generic product,” Corches said. “The initial inventor is then held liable for problems associated with the lesser product, which just stifles innovation.”

She said Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, has filed Senate Bill 669 that includes determinations of fault and immunity from product liability.

Differing opinions
While the Missouri and Springfield chambers have a long list of actions they want lawmakers to address this session, both would be fine with inaction on one topic: COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employers.

Corches said the state chamber is opposed to the Biden administration mandate, currently under debate in the U.S. Supreme Court. It requires all U.S. employers with over 100 employees to require vaccines or regularly test for COVID-19. It’s estimated to impact roughly 3,700 employers in Missouri, according to chamber officials.

At last count, around 25 bills in either the House of Representatives or Senate have been filed to prohibit businesses from enforcing mandates, Corches said, adding it’s also a position the chamber opposes.

“That’s a business decision. Businesses have always had a legal right to set their workplace policies,” she said. “We don’t think it’s appropriate for legislators to say how businesses should be run. It’s governmental overreach.”

Hammons said the Springfield chamber takes a similar position.

“We support an employer’s right to make decisions related to vaccine requirements, without intervention from the state,” he said.

Although Burlison said it’s too soon to predict the fate of the COVID-19 vaccine bills, he’s on board with the intent behind them.

“I 100% oppose any vaccine mandates and support these bills that have been filed,” he said. “My view is that it ultimately falls to individual liberty. When it comes into what is going inside your body, you cannot deny that there is a religious aspect to that. It’s something that should be upheld under First Amendment rights.”

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