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Trial attorneys say Springfield rep's bill would have blocked duck boat lawsuits

Springfield News-Leader (Missouri) logo Springfield News-Leader (Missouri) 2/11/2020 Austin Huguelet, Springfield News-Leader
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When Missouri lawmakers start talking about reining in lawsuits, the legalese can get pretty dry, pretty fast.

But Jennifer Asher wasn’t speaking legalese at a House committee meeting last week.

She had a story: one about her dad, one of 17 people who died when a duck boat capsized on Table Rock Lake two years ago.

Asher, who lives in the St. Louis area, said she called him over and over that tragic day, only to have a state trooper call back and break the news.

She also said the tragedy gave her a mission, “to turn my pain into a purpose, to make sure that no other family has to receive this awful, life-changing phone call.”

a red flower in a river: A photo of William Asher, 69, and Rosemarie Hamann, 68, lay next to a bouquet of artificial flowers on the shoreline of Table Rock Lake on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 near where Stretch Duck 7 sank, killing 17 people on July 19th of last year. © Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader A photo of William Asher, 69, and Rosemarie Hamann, 68, lay next to a bouquet of artificial flowers on the shoreline of Table Rock Lake on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 near where Stretch Duck 7 sank, killing 17 people on July 19th of last year.

And then she went after a bill from Rep. Curtis Trent.

Trent, R-Springfield, has for years tried to make it so people hurt by products can’t sue sellers and manufacturers if the product is more than 15 years old and doesn’t meet one of his numerous exceptions.

Duck boat tragedy: Final lawsuit settled in 2018 sinking

The idea, Trent said, is to protect businesses from getting sued over defects created long after a product left their hands.

But Asher said it also would have also applied to the duck boat her dad died on, an amphibious vessel federal authorities have said was ill-equipped to survive a stormy day on the lake.

a group of people standing in a room: William Asher, 69, and Rosemarie Hamann, 68, were among the 17 people killed Thursday, July 19, 2018, during the capsizing of a duck boat in Branson. © Courtesy of Christine Herpers William Asher, 69, and Rosemarie Hamann, 68, were among the 17 people killed Thursday, July 19, 2018, during the capsizing of a duck boat in Branson.

John Wilbers, who represented her in a lawsuit settled late last year, pointed out the boats were built in World War II and last modified in 1996, making them at least 22 years old at the time of the accident.

“We shouldn’t be lowering our safety standards,” Asher said. “I believe that that would lead to more disasters like the one that I went through.”

It wasn’t clear Republicans believed her.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot, a Republican attorney from Chesterfield, said he saw a clear exception in Trent’s bill for cases like Asher’s where a business may have concealed flaws in their operations.

“I just don't think the facts that you're providing are applicable,” DeGroot said. “And I'm so sorry for your loss.”

Democrats like Rep. Mark Ellebracht of Liberty, were more supportive.

“This is, in effect, a reverse statute of limitations for companies that know that they've put a product that can kill people into the stream of commerce,” he said.

Business groups streamed in to voice support for Trent’s bill after Asher left the stand.

Story continues below gallery.

Neither side seemed much moved by the other.

In an interview Monday, Trent said he’s confident his bill would allow for suits like Asher’s and called it “unfortunate” that her story was used to lobby the committee against the bill.

Previous coverage: After Table Rock Lake tragedy, NTSB again recommends changes to duck boats

“Certainly in a case like (the duck boat tragedy) there should be liability,” Trent said, “and I would never introduce a bill that would cut off liability in a situation like that.”

He also pointed out his bill wouldn't affect people's ability to sue businesses for operating products unsafely, as prosecutors allege Ride the Ducks employees did in July 2018.

Trent's opponents weren’t buying it.

“We disagree with that stance that it would not apply,” said Jeannie Brandstetter, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys.

She also didn’t put much stock in Trent’s list of exceptions.

“The way we see it is if this passes, the courthouse doors would be closed,” she said.

The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday afternoon.

The legislation is House Bill 1596.

Austin Huguelet is the News-Leader's politics reporter. Got something he should know? Call him at 417-403-8096 or email him at ahuguelet@news-leader.com. You can also support local journalism at News-Leader.com/subscribe.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Trial attorneys say Springfield rep's bill would have blocked duck boat lawsuits

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