Court weighs damage limitations query

Published 2:03 pm Tuesday, May 10, 2011

During a marathon 83-day special session in 2002, Mississippi legislators made significant changes in the civil justice system. They tinkered with those changes in 2004 to further limit awards in lawsuits. Those alterations to state law go under a judicial microscope next month.

The Mississippi Supreme Court will hold oral arguments June 14 on the question of whether a state law that limits non-economic damages in civil cases is constitutional.

What started out as a procedural question asked of the Mississippi Supreme Court by a federal appeals panel has grabbed the attention of various business groups, trade associations and Gov. Haley Barbour.

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The lawsuit between Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Lisa Learmonth is pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The 5th Circuit has withheld a decision in the case awaiting the Mississippi court. In January, the 5th Circuit asked if a state law that limits non-economic damages to $1 million in civil cases is constitutional.

How the Mississippi court answers the question could renew the debate over whether the Magnolia State goes back to the “judicial hellhole” label bestowed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2003 because of large jury verdicts.

Mississippi law puts a $1 million limit on what juries can award someone for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on non-economic damages were adopted by Mississippi lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling over lawsuit awards.

In the case, Learmonth sued Sears after she was involved in a collision with one of the company’s vans near Philadelphia, Miss.

A U.S. District Court jury in Mississippi found Sears liable for her injuries and awarded Learmonth $4 million in damages, of which the parties agreed $2.2 million was for non-economic damages. The federal judge reduced the non-economic damages to $1 million.

Sears asked the 5th Circuit for a new trial, which the appeals court panel denied. Learmonth appealed the judge’s reduction of the non-economic damages, which prompted the 5th Circuit’s query to the Mississippi court.

In February, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour told the Mississippi court that the civil justice reforms have resulted in lower insurance premiums for doctors and helped attract new business to the state.

“The non-economic damage caps and other tort reform measures leveled the playing field for all litigants, ensured fair and predictable results, averted a health care crisis and attracted new businesses to the state,” Barbour said in court documents.

Barbour said his concern was that “any judicial repeal of the non-economic damage caps or other tort reform measures would destroy the positive progress made in recent years, crush current economic development and drive away desperately needed jobs during one of the most uncertain economic times in the nation’s history.”

The initial limits on lawsuit awards came in 2002 during Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s administration. Barbour defeated Musgrove in 2003. The law was amended in 2004 amid complaints that the initial reforms didn’t go far enough.

Doctors, businesses and medical groups argued for years 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.

Last September, the Supreme Court overturned a $1.67 million verdict awarded to Richard Lee Lymas against the owners of a Belzoni convenience store who were sued after Lymas was shot and wounded in its parking lot.

Trade groups believed the case was a chance for the court to affirm the constitutionality of Mississippi’s non-economic damage caps, which were challenged by Lymas.

The Supreme Court did not address the issue. The court said its decision that Lymas failed to prove the store was liable for his injuries made Lymas’ challenge to the tort reform statute moot.