By Daniel P. Mehan, President and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry
It’s now been one year since coronavirus arrived in Missouri. The first confirmed case was announced by Gov. Mike Parson on March 7, 2020. This is a somber milestone for our state as many Missourians have suffered a loss, been infected, lost a job, closed a business or otherwise had life upended by this virus.
But while many of us in Missouri have struggled, one industry has been laying groundwork to cash in on this crisis. During 2020, trial attorneys spent tens of millions of dollars recruiting plaintiffs for COVID-19 lawsuits, according to the American Tort Reform Association.
And as businesses seek to reopen their doors and get Missourians back to work, they are likely to find themselves squarely in the crosshairs of these lawsuits. As of mid-February, we are aware of nearly 6,000 COVID-related complaints that have been filed across the nation.
When this wave hits Missouri, it could have a crippling effect on our economic recovery. Employers are especially concerned about coronavirus exposure lawsuits. This is where someone can sue an employer—including schools, health care providers, churches and businesses—alleging they were exposed to COVID-19 on their premises.
Missouri has been slow to respond to this threat. Many states across the country, including all but one of Missouri’s neighboring states, have some protections in place against COVID lawsuits. Missouri has yet to pass any protections.
Senate Bill 51 would change that and finally give Missouri businesses confidence that it’s safe to reopen without the threat that they could be hit with a devastating COVID exposure lawsuit. The good news is that the bill passed the Senate on February 23. Now we need the Missouri House of Representatives to act and finalize the bill so it can be signed into law.
Gov. Make Parson has shown strong leadership on this issue and has asked for this to be the first bill that hits his desk. It’s time to make that happen.
Here’s the bottom line: For far too long, Missouri has been a casino for trial attorneys. Our lax legal climate—often ranked among the worst in the nation—has led to one jackpot judgement after another, with employers paying the bill.
Trial attorneys are obviously doing everything they can to keep the status quo in Missouri. During the 2020 election cycle they spent $3.7 million working to send pro-lawsuit candidates to Jefferson City. Their influence in state government is making it increasingly difficult to enact the legal climate reforms needed to bring fairness to Missouri courtrooms.
We have a big choice to make as we mark one year of COVID-19 in Missouri. I am confident that as the vaccine rollout continues, we are going to finally see the threat of COVID-19 decline. But if we fail to act on COVID-19 lawsuits, the economic threat of this virus will linger on for years in our courtrooms.