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Supreme Court says rule reference doesn’t waive damage cap

Scott Lauck//September 23, 2020

Supreme Court says rule reference doesn’t waive damage cap

Scott Lauck//September 23, 2020

The Missouri Supreme Court said a statutory reference to federal safety regulations doesn’t waive a statutory damage cap for the St. Louis Metro system.

As a result, the unanimous court held in a Sept. 15 opinion, a $1.878 million jury verdict that plaintiff Mary J. Moore won in 2018 must be reduced to about $420,000 under a state statute that caps the damages that can be obtained against public entities.

Moore suffered back injuries in 2013 when a Metro Call-A-Ride bus sideswiped the school bus she was driving. Metro, officially known as the Bi-State Development Agency, was created by an interstate compact between Missouri and Illinois. Because it is a public agency, St. Louis Circuit Judge Christopher McGraugh applied the cap after trial.

Last year, the Court of Appeals Eastern District restored Moore’s original award, concluding that a separate Missouri statute requires Bi-State to comply with “All interstate and intrastate United States Department of Transportation safety rules and regulations” as a condition of receiving state funding. 

One such rule, promulgated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, requires buses that carry 16 or more passengers — such as the one that struck Moore — to have insurance to satisfy personal injury judgments of up to $5 million.

The Eastern District found the two statutes to be in “obvious conflict.” The law requiring the agency to comply with federal safety rules prevailed over the general sovereign immunity cap, the appeals court said, because it applied specifically to Bi-State and had been enacted later. 

But Chief Justice George W. Draper III, writing for the Supreme Court, said that conclusion “presupposes the statutes are actually in conflict.”

“The mere proposition that Metro must maintain a minimum level of financial responsibility as set forth by federal safety regulations does not conflict with the legislature’s per-individual, per-occurrence statutory limitation of liability, nor does it implicitly overrule that limitation,” Draper wrote. As a result, he added, the fact that Bi-State has $5 million in coverage “does not squander its liability protection provided” by Missouri law.

The statutory cap limits damages to $300,000 for any one person in a single accident, thought the amount increases with inflation and stood at $420,606 at the time of trial.

Michael Gross, an appellate attorney for the plaintiff, referred comment to Todd Nissenholtz of Cofman Townsley in St. Louis, who represented Moore at trial. Nissenholtz didn’t return a call seeking comment. 

Donald O’Keefe Jr. of Gausnell, O’Keefe & Thomas, an attorney for Bi-State, said the agency was pleased with the ruling but otherwise declined to comment.

The case had drawn the interest of the Missouri Organization of Defense Lawyers. In an amicus brief filed ahead of the May 26 arguments, the organization — apparently successfully — urged the court to take a strict line on immunity waivers, arguing that they must be explicit enough that “trustees of the smallest town or village, the commissioners of the smallest county and the board members of the smallest school district are on notice” that sovereign immunity has been waived.

The case is Moore v. Bi-State Development Agency d/b/a Metro, SC98169. 

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