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Missouri Supreme Court invalidates cap on punitive damages

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A 7-0 Missouri Supreme Court decision with sweeping implications was handed down on Tuesday only to be promptly drowned out by news of the state’s veto session.

On September 9, the court issued an opinion on Lewellen v. Chad Franklin and Chad Franklin National Auto Sales North LLC. The court unanimously struck down the state’s statutory limit on the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded against defendants. The 7-0 decision was authored by Justice Larry Harman, one of the court’s most conservative members.

Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat who represents a large number of trial attorneys in his district, said Harman’s authorship of the opinion was telling.

“I wasn’t terribly surprised at the ruling because I think they made the correct conclusion,” LaFaver said. “I was surprised that it was unanimous and that the court’s most conservative member wrote the opinion.”

The Missouri legislature originally capped punitive damages in 2005, with various legislative and court battles over the caps ensuing ever since. Most recently, the legislature slogged through an ugly fight at the 2013 veto session over a bill to cap punitive damages awarded against the Doe Run lead mining operation.

Rep. LaFaver
Rep. LaFaver

Tuesday’s ruling will almost certainly invalidate the statute, and open Doe Run up to potentially massive damage rulings in lawsuits related to the environmental and public health contamination caused by the mines now owned by the company.

The ruling largely cited a 2012 Missouri Supreme Court case, Watts v. Lester E. Cox Medical Centers, which reversed the state’s medical malpractice damages caps. Many conservative lawmakers opposed the removal of the caps and largely blamed trial attorney’s influence over the courts and legislature.

“Tuesday’s decision by the Missouri Supreme Court is yet another blow to Missouri’s tort reform law, which we passed in 2005 after years of hard work,” Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder said in a statement. “In 2003 and 2004, while I was President of the Senate, I was a leader in this reform effort. That reform has been systematically attacked since. By removing the caps on some punitive damages awards, this ruling once again opens the floodgates for frivolous litigation by encouraging speculative lawsuits aimed at getting quick settlements to avoid the potential threat of multi-million dollar punitive awards… For the sake of Missouri families and businesses, we cannot continue to allow trial lawyers to exercise so much control over the composition of our courts.”

While Kinder said the decision highlighted the need for further legislative reforms of the judicial system, LaFaver said he hoped the ruling would settle the debate for a few years.

“To try the same thing over and over and expect a different result doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy,” LaFaver said. “I would hope this would remind us that we should be focusing on jobs and economic development rather than issues like, and I don’t think that’s a difficult thing for people to exepct.”