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Punitive Damages with Equitable Relief, Legal Damages

Punitive damages (aka exemplary damages) are “imposed for the purpose of punishment and deterrence.” State ex rel. Smith v. Greene, 494 S.W.2d 55, 60 (Mo. 1973). Courts have consistently observed that punitive damages are a harsh remedy and should be applied sparingly. As such,  proof of clear and convincing evidence is required to merit an award of punitive damages. Rodriguez v. Suzuki Motor Corp., 936 S.W.2d 104 (Mo. 1996). 

The Missouri Supreme Court recently reasserted that punitive damages may not be awarded in the absence of nominal or actual damages. Ellison v. Fry, 437 S.W.3d 762 (Mo. 2014); see also Giles v. Riverside Transp., Inc., 266 S.W.3d 290, 296 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008) (“[I]t is fundamental that a determination of liability is a prerequisite to a finding of damages, such that an award of damages cannot survive independent of the accompanying determination of liability. A plaintiff must prevail on his or her underlying claim to submit punitive damages to the jury”). Punitive damages are derivative, then, in that they are a supplemental remedy to an award of damages. 

Less clear, however, is whether punitive damages may be awarded by a Court with equitable relief (e.g., injunctions, contractual specific performance, replevin, etc.). The general rule is that equity could not award punitive damages. Gould v. Starr, 558 S.W.2d 755 (Mo. Ct. App. 1977). Yet, the Missouri Supreme Court has found that punitive damages are always discretionary. Mitchell v. Pla-Mor, Inc., 237 S.W.2d 189 (Mo. 1951). Accordingly, there are a strand of cases in Missouri that suggest punitive damages may be available in equitable cases. 

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