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Lower statue of limitations gets Senate hearing

A Missouri Senate committee is weighing a bill that would reduce Missouri’s statute of limitations for personal injury suits to two years from the date of injury.

The Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence heard testimony on the bill on Jan. 11, marking the first bill seeking changes to Missouri’s tort laws to get a hearing this session.

Current law gives plaintiffs with claims of personal or bodily injury up to five years to file a lawsuit. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, said most states’ statutes of limitations are three years or less.

“It is simply common sense that most injured persons use reasonable due diligence to pursue their claim as soon as practicable,” he said. “Most people want justice and then to move on with their lives.”

But Ken Barnes, the current president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said a two-year limit would prevent justice for more people than the senators realized. Barnes, of the Barnes Law Firm in Kansas City, noted a former client who was in a medically induced coma for two years following a head-on collision.

“To take from them their right to redress, their right to hold those accountable who are responsible for these life-altering injuries by shortening this timeframe, is just to me reprehensible,” he said.

Bills seeking a two-year statute of limitations have been introduced in the Missouri legislature each year since at least 2018. Last year’s version, which Hegeman also sponsored, was debated in the Senate but was set aside after an all-night debate. Similar legislation is pending this year in the House.

A raft of business groups spoke in favor of the change. Dana Frese, the president of Healthcare Services Group, who testified on behalf of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers and the Missouri Hospital Association, said the bill would make sure that defendants had fresh evidence available for their defense and would not have the threat of litigation hanging over their heads for long periods of time.

“Permitting an individual to file a bodily injury lawsuit five years after an accident is fundamentally unfair to the defendant,” Frese said. He said all eight of Missouri’s bordering states have shorter time limits, most of which are two years.

The bill preserves a five-year limit for other causes of action, such as contract disputes. Frese defended that distinction, saying both parties have copies of their contracts and are aware of their terms, yet businesses sometimes don’t know there was an accident or injury until a lawsuit is filed.

Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis and an attorney, asked if the shorter limit would prompt attorneys to file more lawsuits lest they miss the deadline. Frese, however, said defendants often will agree to extend the deadline if the parties are in the middle of good-faith negotiations.

But Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said many injured people simply aren’t ready to pursue litigation within two years of an injury.

“When you’re trying to recover, you’re not in the mind frame to fight,” she said.

One such person is Kristi Howard, a St. Louis woman who testified against the bill based on her personal experiences. Howard said an imaging center missed signs of her breast cancer, allowing the disease to progress for eight additional months before she began treatment. By the time she was well enough to consider litigation against the center, the statute of limitations had expired. The limit for medical malpractice claims, which appears in a separate statute, has been set at two years for decades and isn’t affected by this year’s proposal.

“It’s too late for me, the law has already changed,” she said. “But you don’t have to do this to someone one else.”

Attorney Ryan Krupp, also of MATA, asked the committee to consider the issues facing victims of sexual assault, who frequently don’t disclose or even comprehend their assault until years later. The two-year limit, he said, would “silence their voices.”

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, a medical doctor who holds a law degree, noted an incident in the St. Louis area in which numerous people were molested at a laser surgery center.

“It was really only when the first one or two cases came forward that dozens came forward,” he said.

The bill is SB 631.

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