JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The daughter of a man killed when a duck boat sank in 2018 on Table Rock Lake testified Tuesday that she couldn’t have sued the boat’s operators under a tort reform proposal in the Missouri House of Representatives.
Sen. Jeannie Riddle, R-Mokane, and Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield, have proposed similar bills that would limit when someone can sue over an injury caused by a defective or unsafe product. Both bills had committee hearings Tuesday, Riddle’s in the Senate Government Reform Committee and Trent’s in the House Judiciary Committee.
Jennifer Asher, a fourth grade teacher in Arnold, whose father, William, died along with 16 other people while riding the vehicle when it sank on July 19, 2018, recalled that night when she tried to get any information about her father, calling and texting him with no response.
A Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper called her the next morning to tell her that her father died, and since then, she’s missed him every day and thought about the moments he will miss, such as walking her down the aisle, she said. All she wanted from her lawsuit was to hold the boat’s owner and operator, Ripley Entertainment, accountable and to find some sort of closure, she said.
John Wilbers, the attorney who represented Asher, said that wouldn’t have been possible under a proposal to impose a “statute of repose” for product liability lawsuits. For years, tort reform advocates have pushed to bring Missouri into the group of states with those statutes. They are similar to statutes of limitation in that they restrict how long someone has to sue or bring charges.
The difference is in the start date. Statutes of limitation set a time period after the harmful act when someone is allowed to sue, while statutes of repose set a time period after a product is manufactured. Riddle and Trent both want to set that limit at 15 years.
Proponents of the bills, including representatives of industry and defense attorneys said the bill would stop frivolous lawsuits brought well after a product’s useful life. It harms manufacturers and retailers who have to defend themselves against the suits, they argued.
While several states around Missouri, including Kansas, Iowa and Illinois, all have 10-year statutes of repose, which leaves Missouri with a worse business climate compared with its neighbors, said Dana Frese of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers. Democratic lawmakers questioned Frese’s argument, with Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, saying it’s the same argument they hear on every tort reform bill, and questioning why they keep having to pass more of them.
David Overfelt, president of the Missouri Retailers Association, testified that retailers have been brought into these liability suits when there’s no manufacturer on record, even when there’s no record the retailer sold the product in question.
In the Table Rock Lake case, survivors and family members have filed 31 lawsuits against Ripley, with parties settling the final lawsuit in January, according to The Associated Press.
Plaintiffs, including Asher, consistently argued that Ripley Entertainment and its employees were negligent in allowing the boats on the lake despite severe thunderstorm and high wind warnings, and that they ignored long-standing warnings from the National Transportation Safety Board, which warned the boats weren’t safe without modifications after one sank in Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton in 1999, killing 13 people.
Missouri law gave Asher and others the opportunity to hold Ripley accountable, Wilbers said. Under the proposed statutes, they would not have because the boat that sank in Table Rock Lake was built in 1944 for military use in World War II and modified in 1996, putting it well beyond the 15-year limit, he said.
Several lawmakers questioned if the law would actually have prevented Asher or others from suing Ripley. Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville, said he didn’t question any of the facts of the case but doesn’t think the statute of repose would apply in Asher’s case because of the major modifications the boat’s previous owner, Ride the Ducks, made after they were manufactured.
Wilbers said there hadn’t been any modifications to the boats since seats were added in 1996, even after the National Transportation Safety Board said they needed to in order to make the vessels safe on water. With the statute of repose, the court would have said they couldn’t bring a claim because it had been more than 15 years since the boats were last modified, he said.
The bills allow a longer statute of repose if the manufacturer has a written warranty or advertisement that the product has an expected useful life of longer than 15 years. In those cases, the statute of repose would be the expected useful life plus two years.
Missouri already has a statute of repose for defective or unsafe real property improvements, such as adding a deck or other home improvements. Under that law, passed in 1976, anyone injured by a defective or dangerous improvement has 10 years from the end of construction to bring a lawsuit against anyone involved in its design, plan or construction.