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GOP Tort Plan Rejected

By: Dan Egger-Belandria
State Capital Bureau

March 09, 1995

JEFFERSON CITY _ The Republican plan for tort reform to cut down on liability lawsuits has come to Missouri, but rejected by the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee.

In an unusual, the committee has reported out the package with a "do not pass" recommendation.

Normally, if a committee rejects a bill, it simply does not report the bill out of committee. A do not pass recommendation puts the bill at the bottom of the House agenda _ effectively blocking House action.

That has the advantage of denying Republicans the opportunity of a petition to strip the bill from committee which has been done with three other GOP programs.

Earlier, the Judiciary Committee had heard testimony on the package of bills to restrict liability lawsuits against businesses and limit awards that can be granted by the courts.

The bills' sponsor _ Rep. Pat Kelley, R-Lee's Summit _ told the committee that the current system for regulating safety standards imposes unnecessary expenses on businesses that can impede business development and company research.

"There are some imbalances in the system that are against businesses and against people who manufacture and produce and try to do things according to the standards that we're aware of now." Kelley said.

Under the current system, businesses are subject to standard government regulation. But if a consumer is injured as a result of a defective or poorly designed product, he or she may file for punitive or actual damages that will be decided by a jury.

Kelley's package would impose limits on liability lawsuit awards. It also would require proof that the manufacturer violated government standards.

Kelley said current liability lawsuit system can sometimes punish businesses even when they take responsibility and do the best possible job manufacturing products.

"I look at it as a fairness issue. You can ask businesses to do the best that they can but you can't expect them to do more that they are capable of doing." Kelley said.

But Kelley's argument did not convince the committee chairman, a lawyer.

"It (the bills) takes power away from juries and says that government organization have more power to make decisions than the people...I disagree with that. I think decisions should be made by the people." said Committee Chairman Gary Witt, D-Platte City.

Steve White, a lawyer based in Independence, told the committee the package would make companies immune from liability and place accountability for a product entirely in the hands of some regulatory government agency.

"We're telling juries they are too stupid to figure out whether or not a product is presenting unreasonable dangers. What a slap!" White said.

White supported his argument using an X-ray from a case he handled several years ago. The X-ray highlighted a woman's abdominal area, clearly showing how two contraceptive I.U.D.s had defectively pierced into the woman's kidneys, a condition that required extensive surgery and rendered her sterile. A jury awarded the woman $100,000 in damages.

If this bill passed, all the manufacturer would have to do is show a certificate that the product complies with all F.D.A. requirements." White said.

"They want government regulation when it protects big business...when it's hurting big business they don't want government." Witt said.

"The major industries are wanting to have their cake and eat it too." Witt said.

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