New Missouri Law Limits Punitive Damages Against Employers
Missouri Governor Mike Parsons recently signed Senate Bill 591, which impacts Missouri employers by significantly restricting the availability of punitive damages. Beginning August 28, 2020, plaintiffs in Missouri will face a higher pleading requirement and standard of proof for claims of punitive damages.
To recover punitive damages, plaintiffs must now 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.” This change represents a departure from the previous burden which required only a showing of “complete indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others.”
In addition to raising the punitive damages standard, plaintiffs will now face a more onerous pleading standard related to punitive claims. Claims for punitive damages are no longer permitted in initial pleadings. To assert a claim for punitive damages, a party must seek leave of the court no later than 120 days before the final pre-trial conference or trial date. Only if the court then determines that the trier of fact could reasonably conclude standards for awarding punitive damages are met, can a party file a pleading seeking punitive damages. Likewise, discovery of an employer’s assets is only allowed if the court grants plaintiff leave to seek punitive damages.
S.B. 591 also contains specific provisions that limit employer exposure where a plaintiff seeks punitive damages against an employer because of an employee or agent’s actions. Punitive damages are now only recoverable for an employee’s conduct if (1) the principal or a managerial agent of the principal authorized the doing and the manner of the act; (2) the agent was unfit and the principal or a managerial agent of the principal was reckless in employing or retaining him or her; (3) the agent was employed in a managerial capacity or was acting in the scope of employment; or (4) the principal or a managerial agent of the principal ratified or approved the act.
Missouri’s new limitations on punitive damages will greatly impact if, when, and how claims for punitive damages in employment cases filed under Missouri law are pursued. Plaintiffs now face a standard that makes them work to not only prove, but even to seek punitive damages. And these changes come shortly after the new damage caps now in place under the Missouri Human Rights Act.