GOT’s Don O’Keefe and the appellate team of Jim Ribaudo, Tim McAleenan, and Neil Jackson were summoned in 2019 to provide appellate assistance to our local mass transit agency which was facing a seven-figure judgment after a previous trial handled by a different law firm.
Following an adverse jury verdict of almost $1.9 million in the city of St. Louis and a court of appeals decision that eliminated the agency’s cap on damages thereby requiring the agency to pay the entire judgment, GOT was asked to get involved and file a transfer petition to the Missouri Supreme Court for much-needed relief. A transfer to the Missouri Supreme Court is not automatic as there are no guarantees that the Missouri high court would, in fact, take the case. The basis for the transfer petition centered upon the Missouri Court of Appeals’ ruling that the agency’s statutory cap under state law afforded to public entities conflicted with certain federal regulations requiring carriers to maintain financial responsibility up to $5 million for certain bus liability claims.
The conflict resulted in the appellate court finding that the agency was no longer afforded the mandated cap protection on damages which thereby extended the potential damages on future cases by almost eleven-fold. Instead of a statutory cap of $420,000, the Court of Appeals ruled that the cap for the agency was superseded and replaced by a $5 million per person limit contained in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. If allowed to stand, this holding would have severely impacted the agency’s mass transit operations in both Illinois and Missouri.
The Missouri Supreme Court accepted GOT’s transfer petition and the matter was fully briefed and argued virtually by Don earlier this summer (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Given GOT’s arguments and legal points, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the earlier opinion, specifically holding that there was no conflict between the laws. Therefore, the sovereign immunity cap applicable to public entities was reinstated, despite the fact that the agency purchased insurance beyond the cap which was found not to squander the liability protections afforded under state law to public entities.
The result of this case was a major victory for Don’s client. As a result of the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision the underlying verdict was reduced by almost $1.5 million, and the agency’s sovereign immunity in Missouri was preserved including their cap on damages which allows governmental entities from being subjected to unlimited tort judgments on all future cases.