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Opponents claim Missouri tort reform proposal could ‘close the courtroom door’ on lawsuits

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was in the pre-dawn darkness of an April morning in 2013 that Rodney Batesel saw his life change forever.

Driving from his home in Kearney south on I-35 into Kansas City, he hit a patch of black ice and became a part of a multi-vehicle crash. His pickup ended up in a median wedged against a Ford Econoline van leaking fuel. It sparked, and Batesel realized he was in trouble.

"I remember looking out the front of my truck and seein' fire and thinkin' I gotta get out of here," Batesel said.

But he was trapped. The flames moved in and burned much of his body, including his legs, before fire crews could pour water on the heat and pull him out.

"I knew when my legs burnt, I could feel the muscles tighten up and draw up," he recalled.

He felt no pain then, but he would feel plenty over the next seven months in the KU Hospital Burn Unit, and another four months in rehab at a center and at home. His legs were amputated, and the former sheet metal worker now had to learn to walk all over again, even as his burns healed.

"It was just my job to support him and that's what I did," remembered his wife Sandy, who at the time of the crash was his fiance'.

Batesel sued Ford, and court records reveal the case settled for an undisclosed amount. But his attorney says had a law proposed in Missouri and already in effect in about 20 other states been in effect, he might well have been blocked from the courthouse.

"It's completely arbitrary," says lawyer Brad Kuhlman.

It, is a proposed Statute of Repose, which would limit any liability 10 years after a product is first sold or leased. There are exceptions, including if a manufacturer warranties the product to last longer than ten years, or knew or should have known a product was defective. But Kuhlman believes that will be tough to prove.

"You have products that are going to last longer than 10 years. They're going to be used in the public, and people are going to get hurt," he reasons. "And they will have no recourse to go against the company or manufacturer who made the product. It locks the courtroom door and keeps people out."

Not so says defense litigator Scott Tschudy. He's used the 10-year statute of repose successfully in Kansas cases, but also has seen it struck down as a defense thanks to similar built in exceptions.

"It's not a hard-and-fast, cut-and-dried rule, 10 years you're done," he says. "There are exceptions to the rule."

Supporters also include the Associated Industries of Missouri which represents businesses. It argues products are used long beyond their useful life and it's not fair to hold manufacturers responsible when things go wrong that much later.

Meantime, Rodney and Sandy are starting over. They were married while he was still in the burn unit, his bride wearing an antibacterial robe and gloves.

"It was emotional," Sandy said. "Even our pastor was crying."

And nearly four years after the crash, they've launched a new Northland business, Cryo Therapy, which uses a freezing booth to ease aches and pains. A business they believe wouldn't have been possible without the legal recourse of a lawsuit.

"Not only a second chance," he said. But a second chance at a different life."