What is a lawyer’s favorite chip? …… Tort-illa!

One of the Billings Chamber’s public policies is to reduce the cost of doing business in Montana. One expense that can be costly to a business is litigation. Fortunately, Montana’s legal climate ranks pretty well according to the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) Lawsuit Climate Survey, putting our state within the Top 10 at #7.

It hasn’t always been the case that Montana is viewed in that top tier. In previous ILR surveys, our state was ranked 27th, 34th, and 45th in 2017, 2015, and 2012 respectively. We’ve been climbing the ranks as businesses have slowly shifted perceptions of the fairness and reasonableness of our state’s liability systems.

To maintain and perhaps increase that favorable perception, the Montana Chamber is putting forward some thoughtful tort reform bills that we are thankful for and will be supporting.

The first, SB 216, deals with product liability reform. Product liability laws are intended to provide compensation to folks harmed by defective products. However, current product liability law in Montana lacks some reasonable defenses for business. This bill makes a number of common-sense changes to protect our Montana manufacturing and retail entities from unfair claims:

  • Creates a comparative fault defense that allows product sellers to show that another party contributed to the injury.
  • Strengthens product misuse defense and allows product sellers to argue that the product was used contrary to an express warning or instruction included with the product.
  • Creates a defense for government safety regulation compliance if the product complied with mandatory government safety regulations and requirements.
  • Creates a 10-year statute of repose, with reasonable exceptions, recognizing that most products have a limited useful life and eventually wear out.
  • Allows for an innocent-seller defense, protecting retailers that sell products unchanged from manufacturers.
  • Adds a no safer alternative defense, allowing the reasonable consideration that there is no safer alternative in existence at the time of sale. 

The second bill is LC 0932, which attempts to shine a light on the unregulated third-party litigation financing (TPLF) industry. Third-party litigation financing is the investment by hedge funds, wealthy individuals, and sovereign wealth funds in the outcome of lawsuits for a profit.

Imagine the imperfect hypothetical where Mr. Baggins is suing Bert for property damages caused when Bert irreparably soiled Mr. Baggins’ coat, mistaking it for a handkerchief. Typically, Mr. Baggins and Bert would have their day in court, the dispute would get resolved, and damages recovered. However, let’s assume a TPLF, Oakenshield Capital, wants to get involved and helps fund Mr. Baggins’ suit against Bert in exchange for a share of the recovery. Oakenshield Capital’s interest is in a return on investment, not an appropriate or fair outcome. Are they influencing Mr. Baggins to seek more damages than justified? Or to continue a lengthy legal battle when settlement is best? What is the percentage of winnings Mr. Baggins would owe to Oakenshield Capital? In the event Mr. Baggins loses the suit, will Oakenshield Capital assist Mr. Baggins if he incurs additional costs or penalties? Do Bert or the court even know Oakenshield Capital is involved? This bill provides thoughtful reforms that protect consumers from potential predatory practices by TPLFs and increases transparency by:

  • Requiring TPLFs to register.
  • Limiting interest rates TPLFs can charge to plaintiffs.
  • Capping TPLF’s share of winnings from plaintiffs.
  • Requiring disclosure to all parties of TPLF involvement.
  • Creating TPLF liability for court-order costs/penalties against the plaintiff.

We are grateful for the Montana Chamber’s prioritization of these bills. Passage will help improve the legal climate in Montana for our business community.

Working for You

House Bill 301

Revise laws relating to dangerous drugs

Rep. Denise Baum (D)

HD 47

Billings Chamber: SUPPORTS

This bill enhances penalties for criminals who commit the offense of distributing dangerous drugs, or intend to distribute, while in possession of a firearm, a destructive device, or another dangerous weapon. Often, our law enforcement officers encounter dangerous weapons when dealing with drug-related crimes. This provides an additional tool for state prosecutors and disincentivizes drug dealers from carry weapons. The bill has 15 bipartisan co-sponsors from our local delegation, for which the Chamber is incredibly grateful. The bill was heard in (H) Judiciary on Friday, January 27th.

House Bill 337

Prohibit certain minimum lot sizes

Rep. Katie Zolnikov (R)

HD 45

Billings Chamber: SUPPORTS

This pro-housing bill limits lot size requirements when the lot is serviced by city sewer and water. The academic consensus on housing supply and affordability issues points to local government policies, including requiring homes to be built on large lots, unsurprisingly resulting in more expensive and fewer homes. Mandating large lot sizes also results in sprawl, which reduces walkability, and requires more taxpayer spending on infrastructure. Limiting minimum lot sizes was recommended by the Governor’s bipartisan Housing Task Force. The bill will be heard in (H) Local Government on Tuesday, January 31st.

Legislative Videoconferences

Noon – 1:00pm

January 19th

*February 2nd*: Billings REALTORS

February 16th: Big Sky EDA

March 2nd: Downtown Billings

March 16th

March 30th

April 13th

Videoconference sessions will be held in the Liberal Arts Building, Room 208 at the MSU Billings campus, where individuals will have the opportunity to hear from, and ask questions of, our local legislators. There is a limit of 25 people for each in-person session and a box lunch will be provided for those who RSVP. Come and hear from our local legislators about what is happening in Helena and give your feedback. Thanks to MSU Billings and our sponsors: Billings Association of REALTORSBig Sky Economic DevelopmentDowntown Billings Alliance, and the newly-certified LEED Gold, City of Billings.

Virtual Testimony Makes It Easy

  • You will be able to select from the bills scheduled for the next 3 days. 
  • By 5PM the day before the hearing, you will be able to submit your written testimony, write a brief message, or request a Zoom link to testify in the bill hearing.
  • Fill out the form with the pertinent details and submit. You will receive an email confirmation.
  • You do not have to testify in order to submit written comments. Written comments received by the deadline will be distributed to all committee members. However, if you request a Zoom link, we request that you write a brief message in the event of technical difficulties so that your name will be entered into the record. 
  • If you wish to submit written testimony after the 5PM deadline please call the Information Desk at (406) 444-4800 for assistance​.
  • Rules of decorum must be followed and the Presiding Officer will call on you when it is your turn to speak. Follow the Zoom directions and raise your hand to let the Remote Committee Coordinator know when you want to speak. We will not assume that because you requested the Zoom link that you automatically want to testify.  There may be limits placed on how many people are allowed to testify remotely on each bill.

Additional Resources

Business Advocacy Sponsors

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to the Billings Chamber’s Business Advocacy Director, Dan Brooks with questions, comments, or just want to chat about the legislature.

Email Dan at daniel@billingschamber.com