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Federal appeals panel questions damages cap

JACKSON — A federal appeals panel is asking the Mississippi Supreme Court if state law that limits non-economic damages to $1 million in civil cases is constitutional.

The question from a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, dated Jan. 19, came in lawsuit filed over a traffic accident involving Lisa Learmonth and Sears and Roebuck Co.

The law on non-economic caps — also called punitive damages — puts a limit on what juries can award someone for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on damages were adopted by lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling over tort reform.

Learmonth sued Sears and Roebuck Co. after she had been involved in a collision with one of the company’s vans. A U.S. District Court jury found Sears liable for her injuries and awarded Learmonth $4 million in damages, of which the parties agreed $2.2 million were for non-economic damages. The judge reduced the non-economic damages to $1 million.

In its appeal, Sears asked the 5th Circuit for a new trial, which the appeals court panel denied. Learmonth appealed the decision to reduce the non-economic damages, an issue that the 5th Circuit panel referred to the Mississippi court.

“This is an important question of state law, determinative of the non-economic damages issue in this case, for which there is no controlling precedent from the Supreme Court of Mississippi,” Chief Judge Edith H. Jones wrote for the panel.

Last September, the Mississippi court overturned a $1.67-million verdict against the owners of a convenience store who were sued after a man was shot and wounded in its parking lot.

Ronnie Lee Lymas sued Double Quick Inc. after he was shot in 2007 while leaving the store in Belzoni. He claimed the company didn’t do enough to ensure customers’ safety.

A Humphreys County jury in 2008 awarded Lymas $4.17 million. The award was reduced to $1.67 million by the trial judge, who threw out all non-economic damages more than $1 million.

The Mississippi Supreme Court said Lymas failed to prove that Double Quick was liable for his injuries.

The case had been watched as a test of Mississippi limits on civil liabilities. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and dozens of trade groups, including the Mississippi Farm Bureau and the National Federation of Independent Business, lined up against Lymas.

However, the Supreme Court did not address the issue. The court said the decision to overturn the damage award made Lymas’ challenge to tort reform statutes moot.

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