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Senate committee hears liability lawsuit limits bill

May 1, 2019 at 5:05 a.m. | Updated May 1, 2019 at 12:33 p.m.
In this January 2018 file photo, a single shaft of sunlight hits the marble wall behind the desks of the Missouri Senate chamber as it stands empty.

Rep. Curtis Trent wants the Missouri Senate to pass a bill saying that a person injured by a product only has 15 years to file a lawsuit - from the date of the sale or lease of the product.

It's called a "statute of repose."

"A useful life for a product is evaluated with several factors," Trent, R-Springfield, told the Senate's Government Reform Committee on Tuesday afternoon, "such as wear-and-tear of the product, natural deterioration from conditions such as usage or storage, normal practices that exist with a product (and) what is typically done under the maintenance" of the product.

Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, told the committee: "Any statute of repose is better than no statute of repose - (and) Missouri is one of the states that does not have one, now.

"So anything we can do to improve that, we support."

Jeff Groves, general counsel for Springfield-based O'Reilly Auto Parts, said the committee is important for retailers like his company.

"This bill is appropriate to protect the 'innocent retailer,' as opposed to the manufacturer, which it certainly protects, as well," Groves testified. "But 'innocent retailers' are those who don't manufacture anything, don't provide warnings, don't design products - but sell those products that are designed and manufactured by other folks.

"Yet, all too often, innocent retailers like O'Reilly are called upon to defend products that are manufactured by somebody else - 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years after that product hits the stream of commerce."

Missouri Retailers Association President David Overfelt agreed.

"I've had retailers put into these suits, or as part of a case, and they didn't even sell the product," Overfelt said. "We have to work to get out of the case.

"It is an issue - and 15 years (limitation) would be much appreciated."

Matthew Panik of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry added: "We think (that) the 15 years proposed is fairly reasonable, when looking at other states that do have the statute."

But Steve Gorny, president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the new law isn't needed because Missouri law already does what the supporters want.

"We've heard no testimony (about) some influx of product liability suits against old products," Gorny said. "Why?

"Because judges and juries are tough on them - and not a whole lot of lawyers are going to take a case based on an old product that may have issues with regards to the way it was stored, maintained, repaired and those types of things."

More importantly, Gorny reported, "Manufacturers - if they are sued in product liability - are judged based upon the technology that existed at the time the product was designed and made."

So a lawsuit complaining a 1985 car didn't have a side-curtain airbag "would go nowhere," Gorny explained. "An arbitrary cut-off like this, I think, hurts some of the most hard-working and vulnerable Missourians."

He noted most farmers use equipment that on average is more than 11 years old, and the proposed 15-year limit could hurt those people.

For first responders, he said, "The average life-cycle of a ladder truck in a fire department is 18 1/2 years (and) the average life-cycle of a pumper truck is 15 1/2 years."

The majority of Ford's Crown Victoria Police Interceptors were designed and manufactured between 1992-2011, making most of them ineligible for a product liability suit under the law.

And, Gorny argued, most of the older vehicles on the nation's highways today are driven by "the elderly, students and young people and those who are already financially challenged."

The bill includes some exceptions to the 15-year limit, including actions relating to real property, where a person knowingly has concealed any defective or unsafe condition in a product, when a product has a warranty that is greater than 15 years, actions regarding negligent service or maintenance of a product, and for certain products that cause respiratory or malignant disease.

The House passed the bill April 18, by a 102-50 margin.

The Senate committee took no action on it Tuesday.

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