Editorial: Pay-to-play politics have no place in debate over lawsuit reform

Missourians deserve their days in court if they suffer losses from defective materials or slipshod manufacturing processes.
Missourians deserve their days in court if they suffer losses from defective materials or slipshod manufacturing processes. AP

Some members of the Missouri General Assembly want to make it harder for consumers to sue and collect damages if they’ve been hurt by defective products.

While reducing expensive and frivolous lawsuits is a worthy goal, state lawmakers should proceed carefully. Missourians deserve their days in court if they suffer losses from defective materials or slipshod manufacturing processes.

And they should be particularly concerned if there’s evidence — as there is here — that the legislation is actually designed to protect the interests of a major campaign donor, not the interests of the public.

At issue is Senate Bill 5, a measure that would change important parts of the state’s Merchandising Practices Act, a 50-year-old law that protects consumers.

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Among other things, the new bill:

▪ Exempts products from Missouri’s tough consumer law if they’re regulated by the Federal Trade Commission or any other state or federal agency, a provision that would exempt almost everything sold in the state.

▪ Prohibits civil damages for personal injury or death caused by a product.

▪ Prohibits punitive damage awards in class-action lawsuits and says all class members must provide “objective proof” they suffered actual damages from a defective product.

Supporters of the measure say it’s the kind of reform Missouri needs to reduce consumer costs and add jobs. “We simply seek a law that is balanced for all parties,” Karen Buschmann, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told The Star.

If the bill passes, though, it will be much more difficult for consumers to file lawsuits for defective purchases and nearly impossible to recover substantial damages if warranted.

And there’s evidence some lawmakers aren’t interested in balance. Instead, they want to put their thumbs on the scale to help out big-time Republican donor David Humphreys of Joplin.

Humphreys’ company, Tamko Building Products, has been accused in class-action lawsuits of selling defective roof shingles. Consumers say the company’s shingles can warp, crack and fail prematurely.

The company denies any wrongdoing.

Humphreys and his family have written massive checks to the campaigns of Missouri lawmakers. Humphreys and family gave $2 million last year to governor candidate Eric Greitens and $200,000 to state Sen. Ron Richard, the sponsor of Senate Bill 5.

Richard and Humphreys insist the bill is unrelated to those campaign contributions. That defies common sense.

Greitens has said repeatedly that ethics reform in Jefferson City is a priority. He wants to extend the waiting period before an ex-lawmaker can lobby. He wants to ban lobbyist gifts. He wants term limits for statewide officeholders.

We’ve applauded Greitens for those efforts. But he can hardly insist on more stringent ethics standards for lawmakers while he and the General Assembly consider a measure so obviously tied to the interests of a major donor. It looks like pay-to-play, pure and simple.

Ethics problems come in many shapes and sizes. This is an ethics problem.

Consumer lawyers and class-action plaintiffs don’t deserve a free pass. If Richard or anyone else has evidence of widespread lawsuit abuse in Missouri not involving Tamko, provide it. Lawmakers could fashion narrow legislation that truly balances the needs of corporations and consumers. We would support such a bill.

Senate Bill 5 falls short of that standard. Instead, it appears to be an attempt to protect a donor, and that is unacceptable.

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