A Jackson County, Mo. jury awarded a Kansas City woman $251,000 in damages and assessed $82 million in punitive damages against Portfolio Recovery Associates, the collection agency that sued her for a debt she said was not hers. The company is a subsidiary of PRA Group in Norfolk, Va.

Maria Guadalupe Mejia Alcantara learned two years ago that she was being sued for not paying a credit card debt of $1,130.14.

Gina Chiala, Alcantara’s attorney, said the punitive damages assessment was meant to send a message not only to the company but to others that she said often attempt to collect debts without supporting documentation.

"The jury issued a verdict that it thought would get this company’s attention,” she said.

Chiala's firm, Slough Connealy Irwin & Madden, began representing Alcantara more than two years ago. The firm filed counterclaims for violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and malicious prosecution. Last October, the case was decided by a judge in Alcantara’s favor. The judge found that the defendant had engaged in bad-faith conduct and discovery abuse. It was the subsequent jury trial held to determine damages that concluded this week.

If the verdict is upheld on appeal, half will go to Missouri Attorney General’s office, which would deposit the award in a victim compensation fund. The other half would go to Alcantara and her counsel.

PRA officials called the monetary award “inappropriate” and an “outlandish verdict that defies all common sense." The company plans to file motions to have a judge set aside the award. 

Chiala said the firm pursued Alcantara for about 15 months after a lawyer in the Kansas City Legal Aid office tried to convince it that it was acting on faulty information. Chiala said the person who generated the debt was a man living in Kansas City, Kan., and not Alcantara, who has lived in Kansas City for 20 years. 


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