August 26, 2011

Judgment awarding punitive damages voided by Missouri court where no compensatory damages were awarded

We recently mentioned a pending case in which a Missouri woman sued her mom (Alberta Comstock) for wrongful death after the mom allegedly shot her ex-husband (the plaintiff's adoptive father). The civil jury (no criminal charges have ever been filed) found no compensatory damages were owed, but awarded $125,000 in punitive damages.

According to various news reports (e.g., Judge Tosses Judgment in Springfield Man's Death), the trial judge voided the judgment as being "so inconsistent as to be self-destructive." The judge reportedly rejected the plaintiff's request to add nominal damages to the judgment in order to support the punitive award, which the judge found he had no authority to do. The judge also rejected plaintiff's request for a new trial because her counsel failed to seek appropriate curative measures while the jury was still empaneled. The judge reasoned, "This Court does not have the latitude to grant her a new trial as a result of the inconsistent verdict," and explained his view the plaintiff's attorney should have recognized the inconsistent verdict and asked the judge "to instruct the jury to award . . . nominal damages."

For more on the topic of punitive damages in the context of nominal or nonexistent compensatory damages, see our prior post here.