State lawmakers are considering legislation that would shrink the window during which Missourians can file personal injury lawsuits.
The current statute of limitations is five years; the proposal would lower that to three. Missouri is one of only seven states that have a statute of limitations for personal injury that is three years or longer; 26 states have a limit of two years.
Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, the bill’s sponsor, wants to bring Missouri more in line with other states.
Hegeman stated during a Wednesday committee hearing that most plaintiffs seek damages before the three-year mark anyway. However, when other lawmakers asked, no data was available to provide detail.
"It simply is common sense that most injured persons will use reasonable due diligence to pursue their claim as soon as practicable. Most people want the justice and then are able to move on with their life,” Hegeman said.
Brian Watson, a lawyer practicing in Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin, spoke on behalf of the bill. He believes shortening the time period that suits can be filed would improve the quality of evidence that is brought forward in cases.
"Witnesses go missing, evidence gets stale, memories fade, and throughout that time the litigants are unable to resolve their cases on the best evidence available," Watson said.
Several senators on the committee support the bill. Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, believes it will help businesses.
"What business owners are looking for is certainty. So if we have a problem, we need to address it and take care of it. But lingering on and waiting for that to occur — I think limiting that is probably better than not," Schatz said.
Watson brought up another concern, which are lawsuits that may be coming in from other states with shorter statutes of limitations. Potentially, lawsuits that are past the statute in one state, could be filed in Missouri due to its longer timeframe.
Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, said that is one of the main reasons to pass the bill.
"As I see it, the main disadvantage to Missouri in having a five-year statute of limitations is that it is different from so many of our neighboring states, most of which have three years, which then pushes people into the Missouri court system because of the differences,” Emery said.
Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, pushed back on this idea, asking why higher courts would not just dismiss a lawsuit outside of its jurisdiction.
"If they can’t establish proper venue, or proper jurisdiction in Missouri, the lawsuit is going to get dismissed, right?" Sifton said.
David Klarich spoke in opposition to the bill on behalf of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys. He said that a shorter statute of limitations would leave less time for potential out-of-court settlements and could increase the number of cases in courts.
"I would just suggest, senators, that if you are going to lower the statute of limitations, that statistically you are not going to impact a lot of people, but you are going to cause more litigation. I know that’s not your intention, but understand, people will preserve their right to court," Klarich said.
Klarich also said that the harm in a long statute of limitations doesn’t fall on the state, but on the plaintiff, as the evidence will deteriorate and witnesses will become more difficult to access.
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said after the hearing that he’s undecided on the bill until he receives more information.
"The interesting thing that was said at the meeting is that no one is actually able to identify how many lawsuits have been submitted between three and five years," Eigel said. "So I’m trying to get my head around how big of a problem is this."