Missouri’s appellate courts have spent the first part of 2021 emerging from pandemic restrictions, welcoming Judge Robin Ransom to the Missouri Supreme Court and issuing significant rulings in areas ranging from immunity for police to procedural rights of insurers.
Missouri Lawyers Media’s semiannual Major Opinions section reviews cases from the prior six months from the Supreme Court, the Missouri Court of Appeals and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that raised significant issues in a variety of practice areas. For reviews of cases in 2020 and before please see our Major Opinions page online.
The Missouri Supreme Court issued just 29 opinions between January and its June 29 hand-down. But several of those resolved important state constitutional issues.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a sweeping public-sector union law passed in 2018. The court’s majority said it violated the equal protection clause of the Missouri Constitution because it exempted unions that represent police, firefighters and other public-safety professions. The case is Missouri National Education Association v. Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, SC98412.
That same month, the Supreme Court resolved a long-running dispute over a $3 court fee by striking it down as a violation of the open courts provisions of the Missouri Constitution. The surcharge had been tacked onto criminal cases to help fund a state retirement system that covers retired elected sheriffs. The case is Fowler v. Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement System, SC98484.
Earlier, the high court in April partly revived a man’s claim that a priest had abused him as a child at a Catholic school. However, the court declined to overturn a key precedent that bars courts from peering into the hiring and firing practices of religious organizations. The case is Doe v. Marianist Province of the U.S., SC98307.
Also in April, the Supreme Court ruled that a law that governs funding for fire districts only in St. Louis County is constitutionally valid. Although it took the court 19 months to issue the ruling, it essentially reaffirmed a 2019 case that held that so-called “special” laws can survive so long as there is a rational basis for the legislature’s classifications. The case is City of Crestwood v. Affton Fire Protection District, SC97653.
In an early look at the recent amendment to the Missouri Constitution permitting medical marijuana, the Western District ruled in January that a company providing a medical marijuana tracking system for the state of Missouri can’t charge extra for its proprietary technology. The case is Metrc LLC v. Steelman, WD83565.
And in May, the Western District ruled that individuals and companies challenging denials of medical-marijuana licenses can use the discovery process to obtain information about successful license applications during their administrative appeals. The case is State ex rel. Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services v. Slusher, WD84247.
In February, the Western District ruled that the University of Missouri’s on-campus gun rules don’t conflict with the state constitution’s gun-rights provisions. However, the court said, the university has to comply with a state law that allows all state employees to keep guns in locked cars. The case is State of Missouri v. Choi, WD83427.
The 8th Circuit ruled in January that Missouri state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch didn’t violate the First Amendment by blocking a local lawyer on Twitter. In a 2-1 ruling, the court said the representative used the account mainly for campaign purposes, leaving her free to manage it as she likes. It’s one of just a handful of rulings nationwide to explore the First Amendment’s application to political officials who use social media. The case is Campbell v. Reisch, 19-2994.
In March, the 8th Circuit declined to enjoin the state of Missouri from enforcing a law criminalizing the misrepresentation of plant-based products as meat. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the law, but the court said the vegan food brand and food advocacy organization that brought the suit failed to demonstrate irreparable harm. The case is Turtle Island Foods SPC v. Missouri, 19-3154.
The Supreme Court has faced two recent efforts to free men from prison who may have been wrongfully convicted, but the court instead chose to wait.
In March, the Supreme Court ruled that it could not hear a case that sought a new trial for Lamar Johnson, who claims to be innocent of the murder of which he was convicted in 1995. The court didn’t weigh in on Johnson’s guilt but instead held that there was no authority for the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office to reopen the case. The case is State v. Johnson, SC98303.
Two months later, the high court was asked to review the conviction of Kevin Strickland, whom prosecutors now say is innocent of the triple murder of which he was convicted 43 years ago. The court, however, turned away a writ of habeas corpus without comment in June. It has since been refiled at the circuit level. The case is State ex rel. Strickland v. Brewer, SC99096.
Qualified immunity of police officers has been a hot topic, and appellate courts have been filled with cases involving the issue.
In January, the 8th Circuit said most of the claims can proceed against a St. Charles County officer alleged to have fired tear gas at reporters during the 2014 Ferguson protests. The reporters, who were covering the unrest for Al Jazeera America, reached a $280,000 settlement with the county in June. The case is Quraishi v. Anderson, 19-2462.
The 8th Circuit in February — and again in June — partially denied qualified immunity for two police officers who entered a home late at night with guns drawn in search of someone who had failed to pay for a taxi. The court faulted the officers for the “severe, warrantless intrusion” into the house but said they were acting in their “community caretaker” capacity when they searched the plaintiffs’ yard and unsecured garage. The court declined to change its mind following a relevant ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is Luer v. County of St. Louis, 18-3512.
In May, a split 8th Circuit panel said university police officers were entitled to qualified immunity in a suit alleging they unlawfully interrogated high schoolers attending a football camp who were suspected of watching a cheerleading coach undress in her dorm. The case is T.S.H. v. Green, 19-3280.
Also in May, the 8th Circuit upheld most of a $6.55 million jury verdict for a teenager severely injured when a police officer used a Taser on him, then dropped him onto concrete while unconscious. The ruling partially restored some of the plaintiff’s punitive damages, which had been reduced post-trial. The case is Masters v. Runnels, 19-2199.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that two police officers cannot be held personally liable for a pursuit that led to the death of a 16-year-old girl because they are covered by official immunity. The officers were alleged to have failed to implement policies for high-speed pursuits mandated by state law. The case is Helms v. Rathert, SC98711.
In March, the Supreme Court said Missouri’s Legal Expense Fund is not liable for a $4 million judgment against a former St. Louis Public School District employee who abused a student. At the time of the abuse, the district had lost accreditation and was part of a transitional school district created by state statute and governed by a special administrative board. But that didn’t make it a state agency, the court said. The case is S.M.H. v. Schmitt, SC98675.
In June, the Supreme Court said a man awarded $2.5 million for his wrongful conviction can’t collect it from the state legal expense fund. His suit was against two former St. Louis police officers, and while the department was run by the state at the time, a state law prohibited the fund from paying for claims against the officers. The case is Holmes v. Steelman, SC97983.
Also in June, the Supreme Court threw out a $113.7 million judgment for a class of corrections officers on claims that they weren’t paid for on-the-job activities. The court faulted the trial judge’s underlying findings of liability, which negated the damages that a jury awarded later. The case was remanded for the plaintiffs to try again. The case is Hootselle v. Missouri Department of Corrections, SC98252.
The Western District in February revived a wrongful death lawsuit against the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission for the death of a woman and her young son on a flooded road. Although the lower court judge dismissed the case because the danger of the road was open and obvious, the appellate court said it was for a jury to decide if her actions were reasonable. The case is Lee v. Missouri Department of Transportation, WD83644.
And in March, the Western District held for the first time that the Missouri Public Entity Risk Management Fund is not shielded by sovereign immunity. MOPERM is a self-insurance fund that serves hundreds of public entities in Missouri. As a result of the ruling, a bad-faith failure to settle claim can proceed against the fund. The case is Estes v. MOPERM, WD83764.
In June, the Supreme Court sided with Elad Gross, a former Democratic contender for attorney general, in his fight to request documents from the governor’s office. The court said public bodies in Missouri are not permitted to charge Sunshine Law requesters for the time that attorneys spend reviewing the request. The case is Gross v. Parson, SC98619.
In April, the Supreme Court ruled that injured workers seeking compensation from the state’s Second Injury Fund cannot include relatively minor injuries in assessing whether they are permanently and totally disabled. The ruling clarifies a 2014 law that sought to prevent the fund from becoming insolvent by temporarily increasing its funding but also limiting new claims against it. The case is Treasurer of the State of Missouri v. Parker, SC98704.
In April, the Western District threw out a lawsuit by the family of a man who choked to death at an automotive plant. Although his family argued that their claims didn’t involve a workplace injury, the court said it should have gone through the workers’ compensation system anyway. The case is Ducoulombier v. Ford Motor Company, WD83430.
In March, the Eastern District affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the University of Missouri had sovereign immunity from a claim by a former worker that she had been wrongfully discharged in retaliation for exercising her workers’ compensation rights. The case is Wille v. The Curators of The University of Missouri, ED109082.
In late December, a split panel of the Southern District said a cable technician was eligible for workers’ compensation after he crashed his work vehicle while choking on a breakfast sandwich. The court said the risk came from driving, not eating. The case is Boothe v. DISH Network Inc., SD36408.
The Supreme Court ruled on April 6 that an insurance company that intervened in a wrongful death lawsuit had the right to a new judge just as if it were a normal party to the case. The case is State ex rel. Country Mutual Insurance Company v. May, SC98650.
The ruling was one in a series of recent cases that have incrementally interpreted a 2017 law that allows insurers to intervene in cases they have refused to fully defend. Section 537.065 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri allows parties facing such a denial to enter into an agreement in which the plaintiff takes a judgment against the defendant, then tries to collect it from the defendant’s insurer.
Despite that ability to intervene, insurers have had little luck in knocking down the often sizeable judgments that come out of such cases.
In January, the Western District held that an insurer is on the hook for the $7.5 million remaining balance of a wrongful death judgment. The case is Geiler v. Liberty Insurance Corporation, WD83363.
The Eastern District in April upheld a nearly $9.1 million arbitration award for a man who was stabbed at a campground, in Loveland v. Austin and Shelter Mutual Insurance Company, ED108859.
In June, the Western District affirmed an $8 million judgment for a woman severely injured by a drunken driver, despite arguments that the award’s punitive damages were improper and that the bar’s insurer had limited participation at the bench trial. The case is Rasmussen v. Illinois Casualty Company, WD83806.
Also in June, the Eastern District said two insurers could not contest an $11.4 million arbitration award in an employment discrimination case before it was confirmed in circuit court. The case is Barnett v. Columbia Maintenance Company, ED109008. That case was issued the same day that the governor signed a bill into law that could make it easier for insurers to insert themselves into such cases.
In other insurance-related matters, the Eastern District ruled in January that an insurer was not liable for a $450,000 judgment rendered against a now-disbarred lawyer, who had been sued for malpractice by a couple whose claim his office had botched. The court said The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company had correctly interpreted the limits of its policy all along. The case is Stacy v. The Bar Plan Mutual Insurance Company, ED108576.
In February, the Eastern District said a woman representing her deceased husband as a defendant in a lawsuit could not reduce a $7 million judgment against him. The court said the law governing defendants ad litem does not allow modification of a jury award based on the defendant’s alleged insurance policy limits. The case is Scobee v. Norris, ED108712.
The Western District ruled in March that an insurer was on the hook for prejudgment interest in a wrongful death case. The insurer said it wasn’t responsible for any prejudgment interest accruing after it made an “offer to pay” its policy limits, but the court said a settlement offered early in the litigation didn’t meet that requirement because it wasn’t unconditional. The case is Norman v. Progressive Preferred Insurance Company, WD83345.
In April, the 8th Circuit held that an insurer’s “crime” exclusion justified its denial of coverage for a man killed while speeding through a no-passing zone. The court cautioned, though, that it reached its decision largely because the man had been driving recklessly at more than twice the speed limit, making it more than a traffic infraction. The case is Boyer v. Schneider Electric Holdings, 19-3144.
Also in April, the Western District upheld a defense verdict for an insurer accused of failing to settle a Belton couple’s personal injury lawsuit. The plaintiffs argued that the insurer’s attorney had repeatedly asked questions about matters that had been excluded from trial. The court, however, said the plaintiffs should have asked for a mistrial. The case is Maloney v. Benchmark Insurance Company, WD83411.
In May, the 8th Circuit reinstated a headphone manufacturers’ breach-of-contract suit against its insurer. The company’s insurance policy was ambiguous, the court said, because it appeared to have deleted a key exclusion to coverage. The case is Verto Medical Solutions LLC v. Allied World Specialty Insurance Company, 19-3511.
The Eastern District in February denied official immunity for several school officials whose negligence allegedly led to the death of a kindergarten student with special needs. The court said the officials had a nondiscretionary “ministerial duty” to follow the formal plan that detailed the child’s care. The case is Kemp v. McReynolds, ED108982.
In March, the Eastern District said a small school district that exceeded its levy owes a partial refund to a class of local taxpayers. Although the district’s assessed valuation had decreased, resulting in an essentially flat amount of tax revenue, the court said the excess taxes violated the “Hancock Amendment” to the Missouri Constitution, which limits state taxation and spending. The case is Blankenship v. Franklin County Collector, ED108824.
Also in March, the 8th Circuit held that Missouri’s vaccination laws for school children do not violate the constitution. The ruling followed a decision in a related case in Missouri state court late last year, in which the Western District denied a state-law claim against the school the family had sought to attend. The family had refused to file a state form that would have allowed the unvaccinated children to attend. The case is B.W.C. v. Williams, 20-1222.
Other cases of interest
In February, the Eastern District upheld a $5.6 million judgment against a St. Louis gas station. It was the first time a court had addressed who has standing under the Missouri Motor Fuel Marketing Act, a 1993 state law designed to protect competition in the retail motor fuel market. The case is Westmoreland v. Midwest St. Louis, ED107787.
And in April, the Supreme Court issued an unusual ruling in a case that already had been settled for $16.2 million. Although that made the suit against the University of Missouri’s BioJoint Center moot, the court chose to decide the already-argued case anyway, apparently to clear up a point of appellate procedure. The case is Butala v. The Curators of The University of Missouri, SC98517.
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