A lead mining company won a legal shield against the potential for large-dollar judgments in some liability lawsuits as the Missouri Legislature voted Wednesday to override a gubernatorial veto of the measure.
The bill, HB650, is crafted to benefit The Doe Run Co., which is facing numerous lawsuits, including one scheduled for trial in October alleging that contamination from old lead mining operations caused mental and behavioral health problems for children in St. Francois County.
Officials at Doe Run had asserted that a costly jury judgment could drive it out of business, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs in eastern Missouri. The company even offered tours of its facilities to lawmakers in the weeks leading up to the veto override. The company's lobbying effort appeared to pay off.
"This company — Doe Run — is destroyed if we don't take action," Sen. Dan Brown, a Republican from Rolla, said Wednesday while urging colleagues to support the veto override.
The House voted 110-50 to override Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of the bill. The Senate then completed the veto override by a 26-8 vote.
In his veto message, Nixon said the bill violated the state constitution by retroactively limiting legal damages and by creating a special law benefiting only particular legal defendants.
Some lawmakers questioned Doe Run's assertions about its financial vulnerability and suggested the company was simply making an end run around the courts.
"This bill is not about jobs — this bill is just about money," said Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport.
Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, also opposed the legislation.
"What this bill does is puts this (Legislature) on one of the scales of justice. It's no longer blind if we pass this bill — it's a biased system," he said.
A 2005 Missouri law capped punitive damages in liability lawsuits at $500,000 or five times the amount of actual damages, whichever is higher. But many of the lawsuits against Doe Run were filed before those limits took effect.
The bill enacted Wednesday by lawmakers would bar any punitive damages related to mining sites that ceased operating before 1975, so long as the owners are making "good faith efforts to remediate such sites." If not, then punitive damages would be capped at $2.5 million, with half that money paid into a state fund for lead-abatement efforts.
Doe Run touts itself as the largest integrated lead producer in the Western Hemisphere. It mines and smelts ore and recycles lead for new uses at eastern Missouri facilities that employ about 1,600 people.