Wrongful death suit pits Missouri mother against utility company

Like a giant, aquatic dragon, the Lake of the Ozarks sprawls across central Missouri. The 90-mile lake is more than a tourist attraction; its Bagnell Dam northeast of Joplin generates electricity powering tens of thousands of homes and businesses in our state.

Oral arguments before the Missouri Supreme Court are scheduled to soon begin in a wrongful death lawsuit pitting the utility company that operates the giant hydroelectric dam, and the mother of two children who drowned after being severely shocked by electricity from a dock on the 90-mile lake.

The children, a girl, age 14 and a boy, age 8, were swimming near their family's dock on the Fourth of July, 2012, when electricity from dock devices was released into the water. The electrical shock was so severe that the children were unable to use their limbs to stay above water, according to their mother's suit filed against Ameren, the utility that owns Lake of the Ozarks and maintains and regulates the dam.

At the core of the dispute between Ameren and the mother is whether or not the company is immune from liability under Missouri's Recreational Use Act. The mother and her attorneys argue that because Ameren charges permit fees for use of the approximately 25,000 docks on its lake - and because it can revoke permits for safety violations - it is liable.

Because the case could affect residents along the lake, as well as visitors, the case is being watched closely by recreation businesses as well as advocates for wrongful death victims.

The Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys argues in a brief that if companies are granted immunity from negligence, it will affect not only the mother in this case, but "future and unknown" victims of negligence.

We will undoubtedly revisit this case as it unfolds. Arguments are set to begin Feb. 18.



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