Missouri Tort Reform
On March 29, 2005, Governor Matt Blunt signed into law House Bill 393, which applies to causes of action filed after August 28, 2005. The new law adds new sections and modifies existing sections of those revised statutes that relate to tort actions in Missouri. Among other things, the tort reform provisions drastically modify the Missouri law on punitive damages, making them harder to recover for injured plaintiffs.
Under prior law, in order to gain discovery of a defendant's assets, a plaintiff needed only to pray for punitive damages for such amount as is "fair and reasonable" without stating a specific dollar amount. The new law adds an additional hurdle for a plaintiff seeking punitive damages by requiring, prior to any discovery of a defendant's assets, a preliminary "finding by the … court that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff will be able to present a submissible case to the trier of fact on the plaintiff's claim of punitive damages." Additionally, the new law limits punitive damages to $500,000 or five times the compensatory damages, whichever is greater, except in certain circumstances. A defendant is now only liable for the percentage of punitive damages based on its percentage of fault.
When Can a Plaintiff Discover the Defendant's Assets for purpose of a Punitive Damages claim?
Formerly, a plaintiff could obtain discovery of a defendant's assets by simply pleading a claim for punitive damages. Under the new law, a plaintiff may not discover a defendant's assets until the trial court has made a finding "that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff will be able to present a submissible case to the trier of fact on the plaintiff's claim of punitive damages." In practice, after conducting discovery for a period of time, a plaintiff seeking punitive damages must move for such a finding.
As with a similar statute in Illinois related to punitive damages, the new Missouri statute is unclear about the type of "finding" that the trial court must make. Defendants may argue that the finding requires an evidentiary hearing in which witnesses testify and their credibility is a factor in the court's finding, rather than a finding based only upon document submissions. However, because the trial court must determine "that it is more likely than not that the plaintiff will be able to present a submissible case," eligible plaintiffs will likely be able to discover a defendant's assets before trial.
What Is the Limit on Punitive Damages?
As in the case of actual damages, a defendant shall only be liable for the percentage of punitive damages that corresponds to the percentage of its fault. The new law limits punitive damages to $500,000 or five times the net amount of the compensatory damages awarded to the plaintiff, whichever is greater.
There are three exceptions: (1) the cap on punitive damages does not apply to cases involving housing discrimination, (2) the cap on punitive damages does not apply to a case in which "the state of Missouri is the plaintiff requesting the award of punitive damages," and (3) the cap on punitive damages does not apply to cases in which the defendant pled guilty to or was "convicted of a felony arising out of the acts or omissions pled by the plaintiff." The third exception to the cap may provide a powerful incentive for a victim to persuade the prosecutor to pursue a felony conviction or guilty plea. "The prosecutor's decision may … be vulnerable to inevitable pressures of local politics or other factors unrelated to the merits, yet is wholly immune from review." Accordingly, counsel for defendants must be cautious during depositions, particularly in personal injury cases, where the defendant might be "convicted of a felony arising out of the acts or omissions pled by the plaintiff."
It should be obvious that the purpose of Missouri's tort reform act is designed, at every turn, to provide greater protections for Defendants and to increase the burdens on injured Plaintiffs who are pursuing justice through the court system. The wisdom of this policy is dubious at best. The practical effect is to severely curtail meaningful access of the public to the court system as a remedy for wrongs done to them.