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September 10th, 2014

Latest ‘Show Me the Lawsuits’ Decision by Missouri High Court Ignores SCOTUS on Punitive Damages

In the latest of several troubling decisions by the Supreme Court of Missouri in recent years, it yesterday ignored both the will of “Show Me State” voters, as expressed through their elected representatives, and Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) precedent on punitive damages.

With its unanimous decision in Lewellen v. Franklin, effectively striking down reasonable limits on punitive damages enacted by the state legislature as part of a broader tort reform statute in 2005, Missouri’s “Show Me the Lawsuits” high court ignored SCOTUS precedent that indicates punitive damages to compensatory damages ratios that exceed 9:1 are generally contrary to civil defendants’ right to due process.

In the instant case, a jury determined compensatory damages to be $25,000 but leveled punitive damages awards of $1 million each against two plaintiffs.  One needn’t be a mathematician to see that this punitive-to-compensatory damages ratio far exceeds 9:1 and thus runs roughshod over due process.

Missouri’s high court also apparently sees the will of voters and their democratically elected lawmakers as an inconvenience to be brushed aside with a specious constitutional claim that the legislative branch cannot limit civil jury awards.  Of course, this liability-expanding logic ignores the obvious fact that federal and state lawmakers routinely legislate evidentiary standards for civil proceedings, as well as penalties and sentences for criminal convictions.  Lawmakers deny no one’s constitutional right to a jury trial simply by limiting or requiring certain penalties available to juries.

That Missouri’s high court judges find civil penalties to be somehow qualitatively different than criminal penalties may be explained by the fact that the state’s personal injury bar plays a significant and arguably disproportionate role in their initial appointments to the bench.

In any case, this is just the latest in a series of rogue decisions by the Missouri Supremes that has increasingly made the state a choice filing venue for self-interested shysters from across the country.

Earlier this year, in Coomer v. Kansas City Royals, the court struck down the so-called “baseball rule” that for decades has disallowed lawsuits by those who are injured after they willingly chose to participate in or attend as a spectator a sporting event or activity with inherent risks for injury.

In 2012, a 4-3 high court majority struck down a statutory limit on inherently subjective pain-and-suffering awards in medical liability lawsuits, leaving Judge Mary R. Russell, writing for the three dissenters, to say the majority had “overrul[ed] more than 20 years of precedent” and embarked on “a wholesale departure from the unequivocal law of this state . . . .”

In 2008’s Wyeth v. Grady, the court upheld the denial of a defendant’s perfectly sound motions for forum non conveniens, forcing the out-of-state defendant to face claims by out-of-state plaintiffs that had no connection to Missouri whatsoever.  And in 2007, the court’s poorly reasoned decision in Meyer v. Fluor opened the state’s civil courts to so-called “medical monitoring” claims, in which plaintiffs can win monetary damages for potential future injuries that may never actually manifest themselves.

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