JEFFERSON CITY — Republican lawmakers have recently prioritized making it harder to sue big businesses, but a triangle of corporate-backed lobbying groups bolstered the effort.
About 2,000 organizations are registered to lobby in Jefferson City, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records. But three have spent the most time and effort pushing for the changes to the state’s civil legal code, according to a Missourian analysis.
The organizations’ members include companies such as Ford, Ameren and Doe Run. Some of the companies have been sued under the laws the lobbying organizations support changing.
Some member companies are also affiliated with the American Tort Reform Association, which has lambasted Missouri’s judicial environment with its eye-catching “judicial hellhole” label. Lawmakers who advocate for changing the state’s civil code often reference the term.
The companies associated with the three lobbying groups are also large campaign donors to Republicans and Democrats. Since 2013, the group’s top members, about 30 companies, have infused $5.8 million into the political process, according to a review of campaign finance reports.
Proponents of altering the civil code say out-of-state plaintiffs exploit Missouri’s courts for large paydays. Opponents fear that Missourians’ ability to hold corporations accountable would shrink under the changes.
But proponents seem to have the sympathies of powerful legislators in Jefferson City. Many whom championed changes to the civil court system are now in leadership roles.
Gov. Mike Parson introduced several “tort reform” bills as a senator, and Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, who chaired the committee where most of these bills were heard last year, is now the Senate’s majority floor leader.
The driving force
The three lobbying organizations stumped for an array of legislation limiting companies’ liability: restricting class-action lawsuits, decreasing damages awarded to victims and giving arbitrators — who tend to favor corporations in employment disputes — more power. In 2017, they supported Senate Bill 43, which, after becoming law, made suing for discrimination harder and resulted in St. Louis losing federal funding for low-income housing.
The three organizations are:
• Associated Industries of Missouri. Member companies include Ameren, Boeing, Doe Run and Jost Chemical. Lobbyist Ray McCarty said it has hundreds of members but declined to name them.
• Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Members include Hallmark, Drury Hotels, Monsanto, TAMKO Building Products and Pfizer. It shares some members with Associated Industries, including Ford, Anheuser-Busch, Ameren, Kansas City Power & Light and BNSF Railway. According to its website, it represents 75,000 employers.
• Missouri Insurance Coalition. Members include State Farm, Progressive and Anthem, according to tax forms. According to its website, it has around 85 members but does not name them.
Some of these companies are also members of ATRA. The association’s website doesn’t include members’ names now, but the Internet Archive has a cached list from 2016. Companies on that list include Ford, State Farm and Emerson Electric.
To identify who spearheaded the lobbying effort, the Missourian analyzed seven years’ worth of Senate committee meeting minutes from 2013 through this year. The documents list who favored and who opposed legislation.
The minutes reflect the only time lobbying organizations have to publicly declare their support for individual bills, making them a good yardstick to determine a group’s priorities. The Missourian’s analysis focused on the Senate because it’s seen as the legislature’s premier chamber and most legislation’s final arbiter. Also, some tort bills are similar in both chambers.
Only these three organizations have supported 40 or more tort bills since 2013, according to the analysis. The Chamber supported 66; Associated Industries, 58; and the insurance coalition, 49.
Just one other organization approached supporting such an array: the National Federation of Independent Business, which doesn’t list members online and receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, according to ProPublica. It supported 39. (The federation and Koch Industries are on the cached list of ATRA members.)
McCarty, Associated Industries president and main lobbyist, said his group helps lawmakers understand the issues facing big businesses. Term limits mean legislators may come to Jefferson City unfamiliar with certain issues, he said.
“I think it does help educate them when we bring different issues to the table,” he said.
Rich AuBuchon, who lobbies for changing the civil court system, said efforts from groups he represents are “integral” to laws passing. Testifying at committee hearings, discussing matters privately with lawmakers and conferring with them during floor debates are vital, too, he said.
Only one group regularly opposes these measures at the capitol. The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys has testified against 62 of these bills since 2013. Its directors — about 120 people, according to tax filings — have donated about $1.3 million to Democratic and Republican campaigns over the same time period, according to campaign finance reports.
“We’re the only ones that represent injured individuals,” Stephen Gorny, president of the association, said. “There’s no way that tort lawyers can compete with the insurance industry or the Chamber of Commerce. They have far more resources than we do.”
But to Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, a big proponent of changing the civil code, plaintiffs’ attorneys are part of the problem. Some of them have a “deep pockets mentality,” seeking large settlements given out by big corporations, he said. Companies that are sued push for changes because they want to fix the current system’s “problems,” he said.
Jacob Luecke, spokesperson for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in an email that the group’s advocacy on “tort reform” derives from “the business community’s desire to ensure our state’s court system is fair to all parties.”
Brandon Koch, lobbyist for the Missouri Insurance Coalition, said the organization’s support for the issue is not driven by members facing lawsuits, but by concerns of unfairness.
“I don’t believe there are specific member-driven issues that jump out,” Koch said. “If (an issue) affects one, it’s gonna affect all.”
McCarty said there’s a misperception that the push for “tort reform” tilts the scale in favor of defendants.
“We do have businesses suing each other,” McCarty said, “so we have to be very careful that we don’t move that needle too far one way or the other.”
However, UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, who has studied corporations’ relationship with the courts, said, nationwide, the current set-up already benefits resource-rich companies.
“The way the courts are structured is really beneficial to corporations,” he said on the public radio show On the Media in 2018. “They can hire the best lawyers. They can bring the most lawsuits.”
The pendulum swings
Until recently, Missouri lawmakers focused on creating consumer protections in civil litigation. In 1967, the state enacted the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, which became a favorite target of pro-business groups. Over the next two decades, the legislature strengthened the law.
At the time, the act was one of the “most far reaching, all encompassing, consumer protection laws in the nation,” according to a 1987 MU study. Today, Missouri still ranks relatively well against other states in protecting consumers, according to a 2018 National Consumer Law Center study.
But sentiment shifted. In 2005, Republicans — controlling the governor’s office and the legislature for the first time in decades — passed the Tort Reform Act. It altered where lawsuits could be filed and capped damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, which has since been ruled unconstitutional.
After 2005, the number of tort lawsuits dropped across the state, according to a 2013 Washington University study. In St. Louis, which is singled out for its allegedly anti-business juries, the declines were dramatic.
Before the act, about one-fifth of all tort lawsuits in the state were filed there. In the five years after, about 1 in 10 were.
But measures altering civil litigation continued to be introduced.
McCarty said changes are still needed because the 2005 policies “seemed to be eroded away.” During a March interview, Rowden echoed the concern, saying there was a “gradual degradation” of policies originally passed in 2005.
Parson has signaled his eagerness to sign more tort bills. There’s “rampant abuse in the state’s court system,” he’s said, and the changes would boost the state’s economy.
While progress has been slow, this year the legislature is on track to pass three tort-reform bills, aided by a state Supreme Court decision, that align with the lobbying efforts.
Since at least 2013, the three organizations have supported changing the laws their member companies have been sued under.
In 2011, the cities of Creve Coeur and Winchester filed a class-action lawsuit against Ameren, alleging it wasn’t paying what it owed in local taxes, according to the Missouri Municipal League. In 2016, Associated Industries supported a measure preventing cities from bringing class-action lawsuits involving taxes.
AT&T, a Chamber member, faced lawsuits because it’s considered a “joint-employer,” meaning if one of its franchises is sued, the parent company is also liable. The Chamber supported providing a legal buffer between parent companies and their franchises.
General Motors, a Chamber member, has faced many lawsuits recently, including over defective ignition switches that led to the deaths of more than 150 people. In February 2018, Rowden said on the Senate floor that his addition to a measure limiting when similar cases could be joined had come “to be known as the GM fix,” according to a recording of the floor debate.
Similar changes limiting joint lawsuits are incorporated in Senate Bill 7 this year. The bill, which now heads to the governor’s desk and is almost certainly becoming law, would not affect ongoing cases but would reduce plaintiffs’ chance to join similar cases in the same court in the future.