JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri's statutory cap on some punitive damages was struck down Tuesday when the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, saying it violates the right to a trial by jury.
Tuesday's opinion follows a 2012 decision lifting the state's cap on medical malpractice damages.
Lillian Lewellen sued Chad Franklin National Auto Sales and its owner for fraud and illegal merchandising practices. The trial court sided with Lewellen but reduced the jury's awarded punitive damages from $1 million from both the dealership and its owner to $500,000 and $539,050, respectively. Lewellen appealed on the grounds of violating her right to a trial by jury, equal protection and due process, as well as a violation of the separation of powers.
The court said the right to a jury determination of damages is protected by the Missouri Constitution.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder opposed the court's decision.
"This ruling once again opens the floodgates for frivolous litigation by encouraging speculative lawsuits aimed at getting quick settlements," Kinder said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Kinder was president of the state Senate during the legislature's efforts to reform Missouri's tort law, which former Republican Gov. Matt Blunt signed into law in 2005. The reform limits punitive damages to $500,000 or five times the awarded judgment.
The court restored Lewellen's original award of $1 million from each defendant, arguing that the state's cap "is not based on the facts or circumstances of a case."
In his statement, Kinder also called for judicial selection reform.
"Trial lawyer control of the judicial selection process has damaged our courts," Kinder said. "For the sake of Missouri families and businesses, we cannot continue to allow trial lawyers to exercise so much control over the composition of our courts."