Missouri Legislature Looks to Address COVID-19 Liability

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Trial lawyers’ spending on covid ads last year surpassed $400,000

As Missouri legislators meet and determine how best to handle the pandemic’s continuous impacts, new data from the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA) demonstrates the need to prioritize liability protection.

From March through December last year, plaintiffs’ lawyers and aggregators spent more than $408,000 to air nearly 1,900 legal services TV ads mentioning COVID-19 or coronavirus in Missouri. During that same time period, more than 120 lawsuits filed in Missouri were related to COVID-19.  

“It is as critical as ever for Missouri lawmakers to work together on a legislative solution to support health care providers, small businesses, and their employees who have been on the frontlines, responding to the pandemic, as they’re targeted with lawsuits” ATRA President Tiger Joyce said.

S.B. 51, sponsored by Senator Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville), addresses liability claims stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic with respect to exposure claims, medical liability lawsuits and products liability actions. It is on the Senate’s calendar for a final vote. If the Senate approves, it will then head to the House.

“It is encouraging to see Missouri’s legislature work toward enacting reasonable liability protections for local businesses, health care providers and others to protect them from entrepreneurial trial attorneys who seek to profit from the pandemic,” Joyce said.

Excessive tort costs in Missouri resulted in a loss of 32,205 jobs and a “tort tax” of $505.21 per person according to a 2020 study. The City of St. Louis is also regularly included in the American Tort Reform Foundation’s annual “Judicial Hellholes” report. This year it was ranked No. 7.

To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some level of COVID-19 liability protections.  

“While a national solution would create a more predictable system for all and would ease the burden on companies that operate across state lines, the onus has fallen on the states,” Joyce said. 

Recent polling reveals broad bipartisan support for elected officials to respond to pandemic-related issues – rather than trial lawyers filing lawsuits to address such concerns. Key findings show that 74% of respondents believe that the government should support small businesses affected by COVID-19 with grants or loans, versus 6% who said lawyers should help small businesses pursue legal claims instead. 

“The data shows that Americans are tired of trial lawyers’ schemes,” Joyce said. “When it comes to COVID-19 recovery efforts, the evidence is clear – a majority of Americans want their elected officials – not trial lawyers – to handle COVID-19 relief and aid.” 

Despite the lack of public support for COVID-19 litigation, law firms marketed their services aggressively. Moreover, an analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that dozens of top law firms received millions in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Some firms spent those dollars to increase their advertising, including a U.S. powerhouse personal injury law firm, Morgan & Morgan, which has a St. Louis office. ATRA’s report found that Morgan & Morgan was the top sponsor for COVID-19 legal services TV ads from March through December, airing approximately 70,000 ads at a cost of $10.5 million.

“This money was meant to help struggling businesses cover operating expenses including rent and employee salaries and benefits, but at least some of the money was used by law firms to recruit potential plaintiffs for future litigation,” Joyce said. “Unfortunately, it’s healthcare and frontline workers, small businesses and employees, who will ultimately pay the price when astronomical litigation costs force them to close or raise prices, simply to keep up.”

Nationally, 176,053 advertisements for legal services and/or soliciting legal claims mentioning COVID-19 or coronavirus aired in the United States at an estimated cost of $34.4 million. When compared with legal services ads soliciting medical device claims, three times as many COVID-19 legal services ads aired. During that same time period, 7,734 lawsuits related to COVID-19 were filed in the U.S.

The full report is available at ATRA.org.

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