Legal reform update: Bad news comes in threes

By Brian Bunten

By Brian Bunten

In one day in late June, three blows dealt a serious setback to Missouri’s progress toward reforming our state’s legal climate.

First, Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed two bills that constituted the core of the General Assembly’s efforts to help Missouri emerge from its rankings among the least friendly legal climates for business.

Senate Bill 591, sponsored by Sen. Mike Parson, a Republican from Bolivar, would have required that people who testify as expert witnesses actually have expert knowledge of the topic. Senate Bill 847, sponsored by Sen. Ed Emery, a Republican from Lamar, would have helped prevent out-of-proportion judgments by clarifying that in injury lawsuits, plaintiffs can recover only the costs of the actual medical expenses they incurred.

Brian Bunten is the general counsel and director of legislative affairs at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Brian Bunten is the general counsel and director of legislative affairs at the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

While we need to drastically overhaul the laws that guide Missouri’s judiciary, these bills simply represented a common-sense first step toward moving our state back into the judicial mainstream. Despite this significant setback, we are hopeful that legislative leaders can find enough support to attempt a veto override this summer.

On the same day Gov. Nixon made his vetoes, the Missouri Supreme Court announced that it would not take up the case of Lopez v. H&R Block. This case is significant because the parties have spent years arguing whether plaintiff Manuel Lopez is bound by an arbitration agreement he signed in 2011.

In choosing not to hear the case, the Missouri Supreme Court is effectively throwing out the H&R Block arbitration agreement and allowing Lopez to file a lawsuit.

This is bad news for Missouri companies that rely on arbitration agreements to help contain litigation expenses. This case is now another weapon that trial attorneys can use to tear down other arbitration agreements in the state.

So where does this leave us?

Late last year, the American Tort Reform Association included Missouri on a list of “Judicial Hellholes.” Likewise, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform says Missouri is ranked 42nd in the nation for legal climate.

With our state’s inability to pass reform bills into law and with our judiciary’s continuing attack on arbitration and other business-friendly judicial protections, our rankings likely won’t be improving.

The only good news is that the 2016 election is only months away. Voters will have an opportunity to elect lawmakers and statewide officials who understand why our state’s unfair legal climate is one of the most critical problems Missouri faces today.

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