Mississippi High Court Declines to Address Tort Reform

By JACK ELLIOTT JR. | August 27, 2012

The Mississippi Supreme Court says it does not have enough information to decide whether the state’s limit on noneconomic damages – as applied to a federal lawsuit – is constitutional.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which is considering an appeal of a damage award against Sears, Roebuck and Co., asked the Mississippi high court for an opinion.

Lisa Learmonth filed suit in federal court after she was injured in a collision with a Sears van near Philadelphia, Miss., in 2005.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph said Thursday after an 8-1 ruling that the federal jury did not itemize the damage award. The Supreme Court justices, he said, could not separate economic damages from noneconomic damages, which are capped under Mississippi law.

A federal jury in 2008 determined Sears was liable for Learmonth’s injuries and awarded $4 million in damages but the panel did not itemize how much of the award was noneconomic damages.

Learmonth and Sears agreed $2.2 million of the verdict was for noneconomic damages. A federal judge reduced that part of the damages to $1 million.

Randolph said the justices could not look into the minds of the federal jurors, but that the question could have been addressed if one of the parties to the lawsuit had asked the federal trial judge to require the jury to break out the amount of noneconomic damages from the total award.

Presiding Justice Jess Dickinson, in a dissent, said the Mississippi court had enough information to answer the 5th Circuit’s question.

The $1 million cap on noneconomic damages applies to what a jury can award someone for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on damages were adopted by Mississippi lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling over tort changes.

Noneconomic damages under Mississippi law do not include punitive damages.

There is no cap on damages for economic losses, such as how much the person could have expected to earn in his or her lifetime or for such things as continuing medical expenses.

The initial limits on lawsuit awards came in 2002. The law was amended in 2004 amid complaints that the initial changes didn’t go far enough.

Doctors, businesses and medical groups have argued for years that the legal climate in Mississippi was untenable because of excessive awards. Plaintiffs’ attorneys and others claimed caps on damages further victimized people who had been wronged by negligence and denied people the compensation they deserved.

Trade groups believed the case was a chance for the court to affirm the constitutionality of Mississippi’s noneconomic damage caps.

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