JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court is being asked to overturn a state judge’s ruling that a legislatively imposed cap on how much juries can award in non-economic damages is unconstitutional.
Circuit Judge Charles Webster in Coahoma County issued the ruling in 2012 in a wrongful death lawsuit seeking damages in the death of a child in an apartment complex fire.
A Coahoma jury in 2011 returned a verdict for the plaintiffs that included $6 million in non-economic damages.
State law that went into effect in 2004 limits awards for non-economic damages to $1 million. The cap applies to what a jury can award for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on damages were adopted by Mississippi lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling over tort changes.
Webster, in his ruling, said the Mississippi Constitution guarantees every citizen a remedy for an injury done to his lands, goods, person and reputation with that remedy to be determined by a jury. He upheld the damage award and threw out the $1 million cap.
“The issue is not whether the limits imposed under the statute are reasonable. Rather, the issue is whether the Legislature has the authority to impose any limits, reasonable or not,” Webster wrote.
Webster said the rights of a person to a remedy for an injury and to have that decided by a jury include the assessment of damages.
The apartment complex owners appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court. The court will hear oral arguments Sept. 24 in Jackson.
Cleveland attorney Ralph E. Chapman, who represents the family, said the cap “discriminates against individuals who are most in need and who have suffered the most painful, often lifelong disabilities and/or death.”
“Arbitrarily capping recoverable damages to those individuals regardless of the evidence, without a legitimate governmental interest in taking such an action, is unreasonable,” Chapman said in court documents.
Attorneys for the apartment complex said the tort law “does not interfere with a party’s right of trial by jury because the fact finder still determines whether the alleged injured party is entitled to recover damages.
“The statute simply limits the amount to be recovered as opposed to eliminating the right of recovery altogether, which is clearly within the power of the Legislature to do,” the attorneys said.
Attorney General Jim Hood filed a brief in the case citing his office’s interest in defending the constitutionality of the law.
“The distinction between the right of a jury to determine facts and the courts or the Legislature to set policy through passage of legislation is well-established,” Hood said in court documents.
“Mississippi law supports the reasoned distinction … between the jury’s fact-finding duty and the Legislature’s authority to set the legal consequences of facts found by the jury,” he said.
Non-economic 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.
Webster, in his ruling, said the Mississippi Constitution guarantees every citizen a remedy for an injury done to his lands, goods, person and reputation with that remedy to be determined by a jury.