Missouri lawmakers on Monday advanced a bill to make it harder for courts to fine defendants as punishment for hurting people.
The pending measure would raise the standard for what are called punitive damages, which courts use in civil lawsuits to discipline and deter repeat misconduct.
Republican Rep. Bruce DeGroot's bill would require proof that defendants intentionally caused harm in order for courts to award punitive damages. He called the proposal a "pro-business" and "pro-worker" bill.
"It's a pro-Missouri economy bill," he said. "It helps us compete with businesses in other states."
Business groups including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry and companies including Enterprise, Monsanto and General Motors backed the bill during a March hearing.
But Democratic Rep. Gina Mitten said companies don't cut corners with the intent to do harm. She cited opioid manufacturers as an example, telling colleagues that pharmaceutical companies didn't intend to kill people but "sure as heck intended to make money."
Mitten said the possibility of punitive damages push companies to make better, safer products.
"When money becomes more important than the actual death of people, I don't even know why we come to work anymore," Mitten said.
The bill also shields businesses from paying punitive damages for employee misconduct unless company leadership endorsed the behavior in advance or "expressly ratified" it afterward.
"I don't know any bosses that are going to say, 'Well, that looks like a good employee. That's a good sexual harasser, I think I'm going to hire that guy,'" Mitten told DeGroot during debate on the House floor.
Mitten said the bill would leave women facing sexual harassment at work with few legal options after lawmakers in 2017 passed legislation that required employees to sue their company and not individual co-workers for wrongdoing.
The measure needs another House vote to move to the Senate. Lawmakers face a May 17 deadline to pass legislation.