July 2020
Senate Bill 591 revises Missouri’s punitive damages law
Nathan Carroll

On July 1, 2020, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed Senate Bill  591 (SB 591) into law, which, in part, modifies the state’s punitive damages law. The law applies to all cases filed on or after August 28, 2020.

 

SB 591 Modifies Legal Standard for Punitive Damages

 

Previously, a plaintiff could receive punitive damages by proving a complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others. SB 591 modifies that standard and now requires a plaintiff to prove “by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant intentionally harmed the plaintiff without just cause or acted with a deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others.”

 

SB 591 also provides that punitive damages are generally available only if the plaintiff is awarded more than nominal damages. Exceptions to this nominal damage rule arise in claims for violations of privacy rights, property rights, or rights arising under either the United States Constitution or the Constitution of the State of Missouri.

 

SB 591 Requires Leave of Court to Plead Punitive Damages

 

A claim for punitive damages may no longer be made in the initial Petition, but instead may be filed only with permission of the court and, in any case, no later than 120 days before the final pretrial conference or trial date. The written motion for permission to plead punitive damages must be supported by evidence establishing a reasonable basis for recovery of punitive damages. The court will only allow a pleading for punitive damages to be filed after the court determines the trier of fact, typically the jury, could reasonably conclude the standards for a punitive damage award have been met. The court must rule on the motion for leave to file a pleading for punitive damages within forty-five days after a hearing on the motion. Finally, a court will only allow discovery as to defendant’s assets if it grants permission to file a pleading seeking punitive damages.

 

SB 591 Limits Scope of Evidence in Considering the Amount of Punitive Damages

 

An award for punitive damages may no longer be based on harm to nonparties.

 

SB 591 Provides New Rules for Plaintiff’s Seeking Punitive Damages from Missouri Employers

 

SB 591 also includes special rules for when punitive damages may be awarded against an employer for the actions of their employees. In such cases, punitive damages may only be awarded if one of the following is true:

 

  1. The employer or a managerial employee authorized the doing and manner of the act;

  2. The employee was unfit and the employer or a managerial agent of the employer was reckless in employing or retaining the employee;

  3. The employee was employed in a managerial capacity and was acting in the scope of employment; or

  4. The employer or a managerial agent of the employer ratified or approved the act after it was committed.

 

Furthermore, when an employer admits liability for the actions of an employee in a claim for compensatory damages, the court may only grant limited discovery of the employment records and documentation related to the employee’s qualifications. Such a limitation is clearly directed towards item (2) above and will prevent inquiry into matters unrelated to the plaintiff’s punitive damages claim.