Legislators seem unconcerned about growing tort reform cases

JACKSON — As the number of tort reform cases before the Mississippi Supreme Court keeps growing, state lawmakers don’t seem quite as concerned about the court’s rulings as are Mississippi’s legal and corporate communities.

The deadline to file bills for consideration in the Legislature’s 2012 session is Feb. 20. That’s plenty of time to get tort laws thrown into a bill to use as a vehicle to deal with whatever issues — if any — the Supreme Court creates.

Sen. Briggs Hopson II, R-Vicksburg and chairman of the Senate Judiciary A Committee, said there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about tort reform.

“There’s still time left until Feb. 20,” Hopson said.

The same is true on the House side.

This week, the court will hold oral arguments in two cases:

— Mississippi Valley Silica’s appeal of a $7.6 million award to the family of Robert Eastman in a product liability case involving the Eastman estate claim Eastman sustained irreparable lung damage from silicosis caused by inhaling sandblasting sand at his place of employment.

— An appeal by Conoco Phillips Corp. of a $15.2 million jury award to an oil well drilling worker who claimed he developed lung disease after exposure to asbestos.

The Supreme Court has more tort matters on its plate:

— APAC-Tennessee’s appeal of a $17.2 million verdict a DeSoto County jury awarded to an injured teenager in 2009.

— The Kroger Co. appeal of a $2.5 million jury award to a Jackson woman who lost sight in one eye when purse-snatchers beat her in a supermarket parking lot.

The granddaddy of all the cases is not really a case. It is a query.

Lisa Learmonth sued Sears, Roebuck and Co. after she was in a collision with one of the company’s vans near Philadelphia, Miss., in 2005

A federal jury in 2008 determined 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 pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A year ago, a 5th Circuit panel asked the Mississippi court if the $1 million cap is unconstitutional under state law.

“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 in January 2011.

That makes Learmonth v. Sears important. How the Supreme Court decides to answer the question will affect the other cases, many in the business community and trade associations and lawyers believe.

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.

In 2010, 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.

The case had been watched as a test of Mississippi limits on civil liabilities. Dozens of trade groups have filed briefs in the case.

However, the Supreme Court did not address the issue. The court said in overturning the damage award, the challenge to tort reform statutes was moot.

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