Erroneously Declare or Apply the Law

When appealing a bench trial, a higher court may overturn a trial court’s judgment after a judge-tried case if the trial court erroneously declares or applies the law. Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. 1976).

Stated differently, a trial court commits reversible error in its judgment if it (1) misstates the applicable legal standards or (2) misapplies the legal standard to the facts of the case. Declarations of law are reviewed on a de novo basis by a court of appeals. Moore v. Director of Revenue, 351 S.W.3d 286, 287 (Mo. Ct. App. 2011). With a de novo review, the court of appeals accords no deference to a lower court’s conclusions of law. Hogenmiller v. Miss. Lime Co., 574 S.W.3d 333, 336 (Mo. Ct. App. 2019).

For example, a trial court misapplies the law when it does not award attorney fees to a successful party in a breach of contract suit when the contract entitles a prevailing party to attorney fees. Desu v. Lewis, 427 S.W. 3d 843, 844-45 (Mo. Ct. App. 2014) (trial court reversed for failing to award attorney fees per a contract).

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