Missouri juries are known to award multimillion-dollar settlements to plaintiffs in lawsuits linking asbestos exposure to cancer. By 2016, talc lawsuits in St. Louis had ordered the notorious Johnson & Johnson to pay record-breaking verdicts totaling $195 Million; just last year, the record hit $417 Million.
These awards were once considered just desserts for cancer-causing companies like Johnson & Johnson. Now, Missouri House lawmakers say the awards have gotten out of hand, and last week passed a bill to limit them.
“Right now we are known as the Sue-Me State, not the Show-Me State,” said the bill’s sponsor Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield. “This bill protects our people. Nobody wants to do business in the state of Missouri, because every time our businesses get sued, they get creamed.”
But if by “people,” DeGroot really means “businesses,” then who is thinking of the people exposed to asbestos? And their families?
What the Bill Entails
If passed in the Senate, the bill would require plaintiffs to prepare claims against every potentially liable company (or bankrupt company’s trust fund) at once. Currently, plaintiffs can pursue full compensation from each possible place they may have been exposed to asbestos; under the new system, multiple defendants would equally share the burden of paying damages.
The measure could pull justice far out of reach from people diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma. These victims might be hard-pressed to identify every source of asbestos they were exposed to at work. And even if they could, delays in gathering evidence could exceed the plaintiff’s life expectancy, which can often run as short as 3 months. In other words, some would never make it to court.
“They can’t necessarily do all of the legwork needed to file suit before they die, and when they die, the evidence of where they were exposed dies with them,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, one of the bill’s critics. “They suffocate to death and are never able to have their day in court against the companies who poisoned them.”
A Wretched History of Missouri Asbestos Exposure
The bill’s critics liken this state-wide measure to Republicans’ push for federal tort reform (one example of which is known as the FACT Act), aimed at restricting the legal action that injured individuals can take against businesses. Supporters, on the other hand, praise the effort as beneficial to Missouri’s economy, saying the current system allows plaintiffs to abuse the system by “double dipping” on their claims.
“What I don’t agree with is getting 2 to 3 times what your case is worth,” DeGroot said.
But how can one even begin to put a price on asbestos victims’ suffering? How can someone like DeGroot put a price tag on a victim’s death? Anti-asbestos advocates argue compensation isn’t nearly adequate as is, considering the immense cost of treating the lethal lung cancer mesothelioma. The new bill, critics argue, would only let these defendants run out the clock on people dying from cancer through no fault of their own.
Worse, Missouri plaintiffs are among the most affected. Like other states pushing for state-level reform, Missouri is home to decades-old industrial hubs festering with asbestos. St. Louis, for example, played a major role in the Westward Expansion when asbestos use was rampant. The celebrated Gateway Arch and other associated sites are now recognized for exposing decades’ worth of workers to asbestos.
“These are people who have dedicated their lives to our service in the military, for the police force, for firefighters, construction workers, school teachers in dilapidated buildings,” said Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty, after breathing heavily into the microphone on the House floor to impersonate someone struggling with an asbestos-caused disease.
“That was not the sound of a person suffocating from mesothelioma, although it sounds like that a little bit sometimes,” he said. “That’s the sound of this body suffocating the constitutional rights of our constituents.”