Missouri bill aiming to stop frivolous lawsuits may kill off consumer protections

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The sponsor of a controversial Missouri Senate bill said his main goal is stop frivolous lawsuits from being filed in the state, but opponents said the legislation guts Missouri's consumer protection act.

Few are more familiar with how important the state's consumer protection act (officially known as the Missouri Merchandising and Practices Act) than Erica Knoll. She's a single mom who paid $12,000 in cash for a 2012 Subaru Legacy. Not only did Knoll never get the car's title (making the sale illegal) but the car quit working a few weeks after she bought it.

Erica sued the dealer Carmart KC, and won. It turns out that Erica was lucky.

A bill moving through the Missouri Legislature, having already passed out of a Senate committee, will make it nearly impossible to sue a business that takes advantage of someone, according to Erica's attorney Lee Anderson.

Anderson said Senate Bill 5 takes away almost every protection granted consumers against bad businesses.

The man behind Senate Bill 5 is Sen. Ron Richard, a Republican from Joplin, who's also Senate President Pro Tem. Richard said he sponsored the legislation to help Missourians, not hurt them.

"Have you ever heard of the traditional hell hole Missouri - frivolous lawsuits, venue shopping," Richard asked. "I'm getting rid of that."

Also backing the bill is Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe.

Kehoe, a car dealership owner from Jefferson city, insisted that even if the bill prevented the majority of businesses from ever being sued, consumers would still be protected because bad businesses can't hold onto customers.

"If their reputation is tarnished as a business then it's very difficult for them to continue," Kehoe said.

Of course that won't help people who have already lost money to a bad business. Kehoe didn't offer any remedy for those people.

Although the majority of Republican leadership appear to support Senate Bill 5, not every Republican is on board. In fact, the most vocal opponent of the legislation is Sen. Ryan Sylvie, a Clay County Republican.

"It would endanger consumers from being able to get restitution when they are defrauded," Sylvie said.

Sylvie said the bill also contained troubling language that appeared designed specifically to help a Joplin roofing manufacturer get a class action lawsuit against it dismissed.

The manufacturer, Tamko, is owned by David Humphries. Humphries and his family are major contributors to Se. Ron Richard, giving him more than $100,000.

They also gave $3.5 million to Attorney General Josh Hawley's successful campaign.

"A lot of people don't think it's right that David Humphries can contribute all this money and that we can pass a law and we can get one of these lawsuits dismissed," said Sylvie.

Richard denied that any money he received from Humphries or Tamko influenced his support of the legislation.