Governor weighs in on tort reform; files documents

JACKSON — Gov. Phil Bryant says scrapping Mississippi’s tort reform laws would hinder economic development and cost the state the jobs that it brings. He makes the argument in new court papers that ask a federal court to uphold the constitutionality of a $1 million cap on non-economic damages.

The lawsuit, first filed in 2006, claims Mississippi’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages is unfair. The cap was put into place a decade ago because of complaints that multimillion-dollar verdicts in damage lawsuits had made Mississippi a “judicial hellhole.”

The 5th Circuit recently allowed Bryant to file a brief supporting the law.

“Economic development is a primary public policy goal for the state and its citizens. Achievement of that goal will be hindered significantly if the predictability and fairness that the cap ensures are taken away,” Bryant said in documents filed Dec. 14 by his attorney, J. Scott Newton.

“The predictability and fairness established by these reforms has demonstrably led to job creation and better health care. The Legislature is entitled to make the policy judgment that such benefits to the state and citizenry as a whole justify reasonable limitations on the difficult-to-measure concept of non-economic damages,” Bryant said.

Bryant also asserted that it was within the Legislature’s constitutional authority to enact the law, and that the plaintiff has failed to show that the law is unconstitutional.

The constitutionality of the Mississippi tort statute has not yet been argued before the 5th Circuit.

Lisa Learmonth filed suit in 2006 in federal court after she was injured in a collision with a Sears Roebuck and Co. van near Philadelphia, Miss., in 2005.

A federal jury in 2008 determined Sears was liable for Learmonth’s injuries and awarded $4 million in damages but the panel did not itemize how much of the award was for noneconomic damages.

Learmonth and Sears agreed $2.2 million of the verdict was for noneconomic damages. A federal judge reduced that part of the damages to $1 million, in line with Mississippi law.

The appeals court then sought a clarification of the statue from the Mississippi Supreme Court. In response, the Mississippi court said absent an itemized damage award it had nothing on which to rule.

The $1 million cap on noneconomic 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.

Noneconomic 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. The law was amended in 2004 amid complaints that the initial changes didn’t go far enough.

Oral arguments have not been scheduled in the case. No decision in the case is expected before next year.

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