For the past few weeks, consumer protection advocates have been keeping a close eye on Missouri, where a bill moving through the state house may just bring an end to “virtually all consumer lawsuits,” according to St. Louis’ News 5.
Senate Bill 5, the legislation in question, would take a massive bite out of Missouri’s 50-year old Merchandising Practices Act, which “prohibits deceptive and unfair business practices,” as Jason Hancock writes in the Kansas City Star.
The bill – sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and supported by both the Governor and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce – would functionally “gut” the Merchandising Practices Act by preventing lawsuits against any “agency or business that is already regulated by the government,” defined as “the FTC or any other regulatory agency,” according to News 5 and the Star. That encompasses a huge array of businesses, including “car dealerships, spas,” and “even credit unions.”
And the effects of the legislation don’t stop there. According to the Star, the bill would also stop the Merchandising Practices Act from requiring companies to pay attorney’s fees if a consumer wins a case against them.
What’s more, the bill also makes it more difficult to file class action lawsuits; as written, it would require all individuals in class-action suits “to submit statements laying out exactly how much money a fraudulent or deceptive sale cost them,” according to the Springfield News-Leader. The bill would also serve to “prevent smaller groups of similarly harmed plaintiffs from joining together to sue.”
Advocates for the bill argue that it’s a measure designed to end frivolous lawsuits and enact a more balanced law. Critics see it as pushing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction, taking away whatever power the little guy had to stand up for him or herself in the face of unscrupulous business practices, including fraud and deception.
“The bill is designed to protect businesses from being responsible for onerous conduct,” attorney Lee Anderson said to the Star.
“It would take away the ability to sue virtually any entity in Missouri,” says Creighton Cohn, a consumer protection attorney, on News 5.
Keep your eyes glued to Missouri in the days to come; with crackdowns on regulations and consumer protection agencies already happening at the federal level, as well, this local battle could well presage where we’re all headed over the next several years.
For more on the bill – including details on why some lawmakers are suspicious of “pay to play” politics from a Missouri megadonor – we encourage you to read the full stories from News 5, the Kansas City Star, and the Springfield News-Leader.