Since 2005, Missouri has statutorily limited punitive damage awards to the greater of $500,000 or five times the net amount of the judgment awarded to plaintiff. See Mo. Rev. Stat. 510.265.
In September 2014, however, the Missouri Supreme Court in Lewellen v. Franklin, 441 S.W.3d 136 (Mo. 2014) held that this punitive-damages cap violates a plaintiff’s constitutional right to a trial by jury.
The Court’s analysis was straightforward:
- Any change in the right to a jury determination of damages as it existed in 1820 violates the Missouri Constitution.
- In 1820, there existed a right to a jury determination of the amount of punitive damages.
- A statutory cap on punitive damages “necessarily changes and impairs” that right.
- Therefore, the punitive-damages cap under Mo. Rev. Stat. 510.265 is unconstitutional.
The Court also distinguished between Missouri’s statutory punitive-damages cap and the US Constitution’s Due Process limitations on punitive damages, noting that courts have a duty to conduct a fact-specific inquiry under the Due Process clause (which trumps the Missouri Constitution under the Supremacy Clause) to prevent grossly excessive or arbitrary awards. A statutory cap, on the other hand, is not based on the facts of a case; it caps the punitive damages award regardless of the facts and circumstances of a particular case.