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“Prevailing Party” in Contractual Attorney Fee Dispute

Parties to a lawsuit are usually responsible for their attorney fees, whether they win or lose. The only thing that changes this in Missouri is if there is a statute or contract which provides that a certain party receives his/her/its attorney fees. Link v. Kroenke, 909 S.W.2d 740, 747 (Mo. Ct. App. 1995). With respect to contracts, it is common for there to be language which states that in the event litigation arises the “prevailing party” is entitled to his/her/its attorney fees from the other party. If such language is present, the court must award attorney fees to the prevailing party. Howe v. ALD Servs., Inc., 941 S.W.2d 645, 652 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997). 

It is not always immediately clear who counts as a “prevailing party.” Many times in litigation there are multiple issues or claims being made and a party may prevail on some and lose on others. Unless there is a definition provided in the contract, Missouri courts have clarified that a prevailing party is generally the party prevailing on the main issue in dispute, even though not necessarily to the extent of its original contention. Miller v. Gammon & Sons, Inc., 67 S.W.3d 613, 625 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001); see also Rental Co., LLC v. Carter Grp., Inc., 399 S.W.3d 63, 67 (Mo. Ct. App. 2013) (“[t]he prevailing party is the party that obtains a judgment from the court, regardless of the amount of damages”).

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