Appeals court rules state’s tort cap doesn’t violate separation of powers

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Published: March 1,2013

Tags: legal, litigation, plaintiffs, tort reform

law_webA three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Mississippi’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages arising out of civil litigation does not violate the state’s constitutional separation of powers.

The question arose out of a personal injury case in federal court in Aberdeen. Plaintiff Lisa Learmonth was involved in a wreck with a Sears van and was awarded $4 million by a jury. The award was modified by the presiding judge to conform with the cap. Learmonth’s attorneys appealed that modification to the Fifth Circuit, arguing that the cap established by the Legislature infringed on a jury’s right to decide how much should be awarded to whom. The Fifth Circuit kicked the issue in 2011 to the Mississippi Supreme court, asking justices to decide if the cap was constitutional.

The state court last August passed on deciding the issue, saying in a 7-1 decision that doing so would be to engage in speculation. The Fifth Circuit asked for briefs on the issue in October, which led to Wednesday’s ruling.

The cap was the centerpiece of tort reform legislation passed in 2004. Business groups, their membership and their political allies said the cap would make sure liability insurance premiums for businesses would remain predictable and not be cost-prohibitive.

The same groups said the cap would repair Mississippi’s reputation as a “judicial hell hole,” in which certain jurisdictions had become known for producing large jury verdicts against defendants in civil cases.

“Today is a good day for businesses across Mississippi because the Fifth Circuit has upheld an important protection against unpredictable and excessive damage awards,” Gov. Phil Bryant said in a statement. “The Fifth Circuit Court’s ruling reinforces the rule of law and bolsters our continued push to make Mississippi the most job-friendly state in the nation.”

While the ruling seems to slam the door on overturning the cap based on the separation of powers, it might have left it open to a challenge based on another constitutional argument.

Toward the end of the 25-page opinion, Judge Carolyn Dineen King writes that Learmonth’s attorneys “overlooked the possibility that, at least under some circumstances, the Mississippi Constitution’s Due Process Clause or Remedy Clause might impose substantive constraints on the legislature’s authority to cap compensatory damages.”

Due process prevents the taking of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The Remedy Clause contains two guarantees: that courts be open, and that those injured have a remedy by due course of the law.

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