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"Empty chair" and "innovator liability" tort reform bill receives hearing

January 13, 2022 - The Senate Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee, chaired by Sen. Lincoln Hough, today hear SB 669, sponsored by Sen. Bill White.


The bill has two main goals, both of which are meant to ensure the proper parties are held liable only for their part of damages in lawsuits.


The first part of the bill deals with the so-called "empty chair" issue when there are multiple defendants in a case. In this situation, a defendant that has responsibility (even one who may be mostly responsible) for the damages in a case settles with the plaintiff. Under current law, the other defendants share the total liability of the case, less the amount of any settlement paid by the defendant that settled the case.


For example, in a car accident involving three cars, the first car that caused the accident could be 80% responsible, and two other cars that were involved could be 10% responsible each. If the plaintiff settles with the driver that is 80% responsible because that driver has little or no insurance, the plaintiff may then try to collect the full amount of damages from the other two parties, less any amount recovered from the driver that actually caused the accident. Plaintiffs look for "deep pockets" and often will involved the Missouri Department of Transportation or others in the lawsuit and seek to transfer as much of the liability as possible to the defendant with the deepest pockets. This can result in a party that has relatively minor responsibility paying the lion's share of the judgment.


Sen. White's bill would allow deduction of the full percentage of liability for the non-party (the driver that settled in the example above) when juries are instructed to calculate the liability of the other remaining parties, resulting in more equitable treatment.


The bill also protects original manufacturers of products from liability for alleged harm caused by a generic product or other product not manufactured by the original manufacturer. In some states, lawsuits have been won against a name brand manufacturer when the manufacturer of the product that actually caused the harm was a generic manufacturer. The bill would clarify Missouri law protecting the original manufacturer from such lawsuits except in certain situations.


Associated Industries of Missouri president/CEO Ray McCarty testified in support of the bill, saying, "This bill is about fairness. Defendants should only be liable for their percentage of fault - not the liability of others."


No action was taken on the bill at today's hearing.

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