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MO chamber beats same legislative drum

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Industry trade organizations and business groups joined the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Jan. 3 to pinpoint three unresolved issues from the 2011 legislative session as top priorities for businesses in 2012.

The initiative, dubbed the Missouri Business Climate Agenda, asks lawmakers to tackle workers’ compensation, employment law and tort reform as they returned to Jefferson City on Jan. 4.

In a news conference last week in the Capitol Rotunda, Missouri Chamber President and CEO Daniel Mehan said the coalition, which includes the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses and Missouri Merchants and Manufacturers Association, feels the issues are imperative to improving the state’s business climate.

Republican legislators may be receptive to the calls for action following a failed special session that seemed to divide the party on the merits of tax incentives, according to George Connor, director of Missouri State University’s political science department. Their inability to agree on the bipartisan Made in Missouri Jobs Package, which sought $360 million in tax breaks for an air cargo transport hub between St. Louis and China, could indicate the majority party would settle on common ground in 2012, Connor said.

“When it comes to tort reform, workers’ comp or employment law reform, it is, I think, easier for Republicans to reach agreement and marginalize the Democratic complaints. In the House anyway, they are all running for re-election and it would be nice for them to accomplish something,” Connor said. “I think it’s tough to go back home after the special session and say, ‘We did … oh wait, we didn’t do anything.’”

Republican leadership emphasized changes to Missouri’s workplace injury laws prior to the session start. The aim is to address court rulings such as Robinson v. Hooker that have been handed down since conservatives revamped the workers’ compensation system in 2005, according to chamber officials.

In that case involving two city of Kansas City employees, the plaintiff was blinded when the defendant hit him with a high-pressure hose. An appellate court overturned a ruling that dismissed a negligence suit against the defendant because there had been a workers’ compensation claim made. Reform proponents want to keep employees from suing fellow employees and require coverage of occupational diseases by the workers’ compensation system. The goal is to keep potential costs down for businesses by keeping such disputes out of the courts.

“That court ruling was truly an unintended consequence of the legislative changes made in 2005,” said Missouri chamber spokeswoman Karen Buschmann. “Imagine what havoc that would create in the workplace if workers were able to sue one another.”

Last year, the Missouri chamber outlined a Fix the Six initiative that worked toward the passage of a franchise tax cap and unemployment insurance reform bills. Another initiative, the elimination of a minimum-wage escalator, was not signed and is not a priority this year.

The coalition has added four provisions to tort reform that were not sought in 2011. Buschmann said the first calls for a pure several liability system where those found liable for damages would pay the percentage of damages the court assigns to that fault. Through premises liability, employers would not be liable for acts that violate the law on their property without their knowledge. A one-way, loser-pay system also is being sought, which would require plaintiffs to pay the defendant’s legal fees if a case is found in the defendant’s favor. Permit shield protection is the fourth provision, and it is designed to discourage lawsuits against companies that meet the criteria outlined in issued permits.

“With a small business, even just one frivolous lawsuit could put it out of business,” Buschmann said. “What we’re trying to do is provide certainty for our employers by providing a legal climate that is fair.”

The coalition seeks to change state law in discrimination claims by raising the standard of proof in terminations to a motivating factor, as opposed to a contributing factor, the current standard. Buschmann said the goal is to match the state’s employment law with the federal Civil Rights Act.

Laurel Stevenson, a tort law specialist with Lathrop & Gage LLP in Springfield, said while her firm does not take a position on the coalition’s proposed reforms, she knows that many feel changing liability standards would benefit businesses.

“It gets down to (the ability to collect) judgments,” Stevenson said.

She said reforms in 2008 established the current 51 percent standard, which means a defendant has to pay for the liability of the co-defendant only if the first defendant was 51 percent at fault or more. Prior to that, if a defendant was found to have 1 percent liability, but had the ability to pay the full judgment and other parties didn’t claim any assets, the party with ability to pay might shoulder the full judgment.

The coalition agenda aside, legislators are immediately charged with overcoming a $500 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2013, according to a news release from state Senate leaders.[[In-content Ad]]

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