In a unanimous decision on Tuesday, September 9, 2014, the Missouri Supreme Court decided that the mandatory reduction of a punitive damage award pursuant to Missouri Statute 510.265 violates a plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury as guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution.
The case is Lillian Lewellen v. Chad Franklin and Chad Franklin National Auto Sales North, SC92871. The case involves a 2012 jury verdict against a defunct Kansas City area car dealership. The jury awarded Lewellen $25,000 in actual damages on claims of fraudulent misrepresentation against Franklin, plus punitive damages of $1 million. However, in post-trial motions, the trial court reduced the punitive award to $500,000 pursuant to a 2005 state statute which limited punitive damages to five times the amount of the plaintiff’s actual damages or $500,000.
The Supreme Court reasoned that because the Missouri Constitution guarantees an “inviolate” right to a jury trial, the legislature cannot restrict the amount juries can award for a cause of action that was available under the common law when the constitution was first written in 1820.
This case follows a 2012 Supreme Court decision that disallowed a similar cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. Even though the court has cautioned that differences between punitive damages and compensatory damages usually shouldn’t exceed a single digit ratio, the court justified the large award because of the defendant’s “intentional and flagrant trickery and deceit”. According to the evidence, the Defendants had repetitively used intentionally deceptive business practices targeting financially vulnerable individuals and that weighed in favor of a higher punitive damage award and that the 40:1 ratio was not excessive.
The law firm of Tatlow, Gump, Faiella & Wheelan, LLC, has been diligently and successfully representing individuals and families for many years, ensuring that our clients receive the full compensation they are entitled to under the law. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured by the negligence of another, please contact our firm and talk to one of our experienced attorneys about your situation.