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Punitive Damages in Missouri – From Difficult to Virtually Impossible

If you were injured as a result of a motor vehicle collision, car crash, slip and fall or in some other fashion as a result of the negligence of a third party, there are several types of damages you may recover via settlement or that the defendant may be forced to pay following a favorable verdict. Compensatory damages, also known as “actual damages,” are damages for the personal injuries suffered by an injured party that were caused by the defendant’s negligence. Compensatory damages are broken down into two categories: economic and non-economic. Economic damages are “calculable,” and tend to be for losses such as medical bills or lost wages, whereas non-economic damages are for things such as pain and suffering.

Punitive damages on the other hand are damages that do not go directly to the plaintiff for the injuries he or she suffered, but instead are used to punish the defendant for their outrageous action and to deter others from acting in a similar way. Punitive damages require a higher standard of proof – clear and convincing evidence – as opposed to the traditional standard of proof in civil cases – preponderance of the evidence (“more likely than not”). For decades in Missouri, punitive damages were warranted if the jury determined the defendant showed a complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety and well-being of others.

That all changed this spring when the Missouri Legislature passed SB 591 and on July 1, 2020 when Governor Mike Parsons signed the bill into law. SB 591 effectively shifts the standard of proof for seeking punitive damages in a civil personal injury or medical malpractice case from difficult to virtually impossible. Instead of having to show the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others, plaintiffs must now prove the defendant “intentionally harmed the plaintiff without just cause or acted with a deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others.”

While Missouri courts have yet to interpret the exact wording of SB 591, which will go into effect on August 28, 2020, one thing is clear – holding defendants accountable by seeking punitive damages just got a whole lot harder in Missouri. Proponents of the bill claim the new heightened standard will prevent supposedly baseless claims from seeking punitive damages and will help employers hire more workers and improve employee benefits due to a decline in frivolous lawsuits. In reality, the new standard prohibits our judicial system from punishing those who injure innocent Missouri citizens as a result of reckless conduct, such as texting and driving or drinking and driving, and from holding businesses accountable for actions like unlawful discrimination based on age, race, or sex.

The good news is that if you or a loved one was injured in a motor vehicle collision, car accident or crash, slip and fall or trip and dive incident, or through some other form of negligence, our team is here to help you with your case and help you get the compensatory damages you deserve. While punitive damages are now more difficult to obtain, we are still here to take the stress and anxiety of dealing with the insurance company off your shoulders, and to guide you through the litigation process each step of the way.