Lawsuit shaping up as test of Miss. tort reform

Published 12:56 am Sunday, December 20, 2009

Before Mississippi lawmakers passed tort reform that limited damages in civil litigation, Ronnie Lee Lymas’ lawsuit against the store where he was shot wouldn’t have gotten much attention.

That’s anything but true now: The case is being characterized as a test of Mississippi’s tort reform laws — hailed by business leaders and despised by plaintiffs attorneys — and a showdown over so-called premises liability issues.

Lymas’ lawsuit is now before the Mississippi Supreme Court, and those filing briefs in the case include the Mississippi attorney general’s office, Gov. Haley Barbour and dozens of trade and business associations.

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Barbour, a Republican who has championed tort reform, said in a news release Friday that Mississippi was a “judicial hellhole” before limits were placed in civil litigation and a ruling that overrides those laws would be devastating for the state.

Barbour filed a brief in the case Thursday asking the state Supreme Court to uphold a lower court’s ruling that he said affirmed “the constitutionality of Mississippi’s non-economic damage caps.”

The non-economic caps put a limit on what juries can award someone for such things as pain and suffering.

Numerous business groups have also signed onto court briefs, weighing in on the issue of premises liability and whether businesses are liable for injuries to customers.

This is how the Lymas lawsuit rose from obscurity. Lymas sued Double Quick Inc. after he was shot in 2007 while leaving a store in Belzoni, claiming the company didn’t do enough to ensure the safety of its customers.

A jury awarded Lymas actual damages to cover things like medical costs and additional non-economic damages with the total coming to about $4 million. The judge in the case, however, lowered the non-economic damages to $1 million, which is the cap put into law by the Mississippi Legislature in 2004.

Lymas’ attorneys are challenging the constitutionality of the limit. His attorneys had no comment when contacted Friday by The Associated Press.

The Magnolia Bar Association, a lawyer’s group, filed a brief in support of Lymas, saying the Legislature’s limit violated the Constitution’s separation of powers by stepping into judiciary matters.

“Capping damages … eviscerates trial by jury as it was understood when the constitutions of Mississippi and the United States were first adopted,” the group argues.

Barbour also filed what is known as an amicus brief in the case, a legal tool that allows outside parties to show support in a case.

“Judicial repeal of the non-economic damages cap would have horrendous consequences for the State,” Barbour argued. “Insurance premiums for Mississippi businesses and health care providers would dramatically increase due to the added uncertainty of exposure to outrageous awards.”

The limits on damages was adopted after years of contentious wrangling over tort reform in Mississippi. Doctors, businesses and medical groups had argued that the legal climate in Mississippi was untenable due to excessive awards. Plaintiffs attorneys and others claimed caps on damages further victimized people who had been wronged by negligence and denied them the compensation they deserved.