LEASBURG — The members of the extended Hall family had traveled for hours to get to this moment. They were about to board an old yellow bus that would take them to the drop-off point for their family canoe trip on the Meramec River.
As part of his routine, the bus driver asked if they needed life jackets.
“We all need life jackets,” 64-year-old matriarch Karen Hall said in a half-assertion, half-question to her family.
“I don’t need a life jacket,” her 38-year-old son, John Hall, quickly responded as others added their own denials. “It’s knee deep. If you fall in, you can lay on your back.”
Missouri floaters who refuse life jackets soon could be taking an even greater risk than they assumed.
Legislation pending before Gov. Matt Blunt would provide special protections for Missouri’s booming paddle sport industry, shielding canoe rental stores from some legal claims arising from what the bill declares as an inherently risky activity.
Blunt already has signed separate, broader legislation that beginning Aug. 28 will place new restrictions on all wrongful death, injury and product liability lawsuits. The bill caps how much money juries can award and limits where lawsuits can be filed, among other things.
The bill spelling out additional protections for the paddle sport industry floated through the General Assembly with barely a ripple of public attention. It passed the House on the session’s final day.
The legislation prohibits liability lawsuits against canoe, kayak and raft renters resulting from the inherent risks of paddle sport activities, which it defines broadly to include everything from capsizing to heat exhaustion and animal bites.
“Part of the premise for the tort law is there’s a fair amount of drinking out on the river,” said Robert “Bear” Bass, the owner of Ozark Outdoors Riverfront Resort, who acknowledges enjoying a beer while floating the Meramec with his Australian shepherd, Milo.
Like the doctors who lobbied for medical malpractice limits contained in the broader bill, Bass and other members of the Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association are hoping their specific legislation will help keep down the costs of liability insurance and legal fees.
“If there is something significant or negligent, we should be responsible for that,” Bass said. “But 90 percent of the time, it’s a lack of forethought — ‘I should be drinking water, not just beer’ or ‘I shouldn’t be jumping from rocks and bluffs.”‘
The canoeing and rafting industry is big business in Missouri, especially in the Ozarks. During the 2004 fiscal year, boat and canoe rentals generated almost $5.9 million in taxable sales, according to the state Department of Revenue.
Similar paddle sport liability laws already have been enacted in several states. But some Democratic lawmakers saw the bill as a favor to a popular business.
“I like floating myself,” said Democratic Rep. John Burnett, a Kansas City attorney who voted against the bill. “But to me, it would be analogous to saying in Kansas City we have really good barbecue, so we’re going to give our barbecue industry special protection from lawsuits because we like them.”
Burnett said the legislation is unfair, because similar legal protections are not granted to other risky recreational activities, such go-cart tracks.
The legislation still allows liability lawsuits when canoe providers are negligent in their safety — when they provide equipment they should have known was unsafe, or when they fail to provide personal flotation devices.
The legislation requires stores to post signs warning customers that the business is not liable for injury or death.