Court wants more information in tort cap cases

JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court has asked attorneys for more information as it considers whether the state’s limitation on damages in civil cases is constitutional.

In an order last month, the court asked attorneys for Sears, Roebuck and Co., and for plaintiff Lisa Learmonth to explain why a Mississippi jury failed to distinguish between non-economic damages and economic damages.

Learmonth sued Sears after she was in a collision with one of the company’s vans near Philadelphia in Central Mississippi in 2005

A federal jury in 2008 determined that Sears was liable for Learmonth’s injuries and awarded $4 million in damages. The parties agreed $2.2 million was for non-economic damages, and the federal judge reduced that part of the damages to $1 million.

The case is now before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which asked the Mississippi court if the $1-million cap is unconstitutional under state law.

Mississippi Justice Michael K. Randolph, in a Sept. 15 order, said lawyers must explain to the court how, if the jury did not specify the amount of non-economic damages, they came up with the $2.2-million figure.

Sears was given until today to respond to the order; Learmonth’s attorneys until Nov. 14. A response by Sears is due Nov. 28.

Sears had asked the 5th Circuit for a new trial, which it denied.

The case has been watched by various business and trade associations, and by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who said in court papers that “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.”

The $1-million cap on non-economic 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.

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.

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 changes didn’t go far enough.

Doctors, businesses and medical groups 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.

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 the store’s 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 his challenge to the tort reform statute moot.

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