St. Louis and Kansas City have long been cross-state baseball rivals. Who can forget the 1985 I-70 World Series?
So it is hardly surprising that on the eve of St. Louis being named by the American Tort Reform Association as the number one Judicial Hellhole in the country, juries in Jackson County (home to Kansas City) would stake their own claim to that dubious distinction by returning two jaw-dropping punitive awards in consecutive days.
On December 8, a jury awarded a former Orkin worker $120,892 in compensatory damages and a whopping $10 million in punitive damages—a punitive/compensatory ratio of more than 82:1—for allegedly discriminatorily terminating him because of his age and disability.
Not to be outdone, the following day a jury awarded a former manager at American Family Insurance $450,000 in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages—a punitive/compensatory ratio of more than 44:1—for alleged retaliatory discharge and age and sex discrimination.
It is possible that the punitive awards in these cases will be reduced to the 5:1 maximum set by Mo. Rev. Stat. § 510.265. Although the Missouri Supreme Court has held that this cap provision is unconstitutional as applied to causes of action that pre-dated the enactment of the Missouri Constitution in 1820, it would seem self-evident that the statutory employment-discrimination claims in these cases do not predate the 1820 Constitution. Nonetheless, given the predilection of the Missouri courts to thwart legislative tort reform, it is hardly a sure thing that they will apply the cap in these cases.
Either way, it would seem that both defendants have strong arguments that even a 5:1 ratio of punitive to compensatory damages would be unconstitutionally excessive. The Supreme Court held in State Farm that “[w]hen compensatory damages are substantial,” a 1:1 ratio “can reach the outermost limit of the due process guarantee.”
There can be little doubt that compensatory awards in the six figures are “substantial.” And as reported by the media, the facts in these case don’t stand out as being so reprehensible as to warrant deviating from the 1:1 presumption established in State Farm.
We will report on developments in these two cases (as well as the several other large Missouri verdicts from 2016) as they occur.