Damages cap issue not gone for good

by Clay Chandler

Published: September 2,2012

Tags: damages cap, Mississippi Supreme Court, tort reform

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals about a year and a half ago asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to decide if the state’s cap on noneconomic damages was constitutional.

On Aug. 23, the state justices declined to do so. The question arose out of a personal injury lawsuit against Sears and Roebuck Co.

Plaintiff Lisa Learmonth was awarded $4 million by a federal jury, but that award was modified to conform to the tort cap. Claiming the state’s $1 million cap on noneconomic damages was unconstitutional, Learmonth’s attorneys appealed that modification to the Fifth Circuit, who kicked the issue to the state court for clarification on the cap.

In a 7-1 ruling (Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. did not participate), justices said they lacked sufficient information to render a decision. In the majority opinion, Justice Mike Randoph wrote that to do so would “require engaging in speculation(,) conjecture(,) supposition and guesswork regarding what amount the jury (may have) awarded in economic damages and what amount it (may have) awarded in noneconomic damages.”

Justice Jess Dickinson was the lone dissent. In his separate opinion, he said the court’s refusal to settle the cap question based on whether the federal court’s calculations used to arrive at the modified award were factual was to disregard simple math.

“The court deducted all claimed and proven economic damages in the amount of $1,781,094.40 from the total award of $4 million, to arrive at the noneconomic award of $2,218,905.60,” Dickinson wrote. “In third grade, I was asked: “If a farmer has 10 apples and sells six, how many apples does he have left? Neither my answer of four apples, nor the district court’s mathematical calculation — according to the majority’s logic — was ‘factual.’”

The court’s ruling doesn’t mean the issue is dead, or that justices won’t eventually decide the issue. In fact, there are a couple ways the state’s high court could employ — or be compelled to employ — to settle the constitutionality of the damages cap.

The most likely way the issue would appear before the court again arises out of Coahoma County. Circuit Judge Charles Webster, presiding over a premises liability case, ruled in April that the cap was unconstitutional after a $7.5 million verdict was returned for the plaintiff. As that case winds its way up to the state Supreme Court, law professor Matt Steffey says it will put the issue “very squarely” before the justices once it arrives in front of them.

“It’s just like we saw with the Affordable Care Act,” said Steffey, who teaches at the Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson. “If all the lower courts had ruled that unconstitutional, there was at least a chance the U.S. Supreme Court could have stayed out of it. Here, the Mississippi Supreme Court’s going to have to address that question one way or another. It’s unimaginable that they wouldn’t.”

Another avenue for the issue to reappear at the state Supreme Court is if the Fifth Circuit remands it back. Though that’s the least likely option, Steffey said it’s still possible.

What’s most striking about the court’s non-decision, Steffey said, is that they sat on the question for more than a year. While such a scenario is not unprecedented, that amount of time for a non-answer “is on the long side,” Steffey said.

“Typically, if you ran the statistics, you would find that state courts usually go ahead and answer the question. The federal system does not exist for the purpose of interpreting state law, so usually the state courts will choose to answer these questions themselves because it’s their core duty to do so. It is a discretionary matter the way the rules are set up. There’s a doctrine that courts should decide cases on a constitutional basis only when they have to. This is not commonly the way these things go. If a state court holds on to a case for a substantial a period of time, it usually means they’re in the process of answering the question.”

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