State courts not bound by federal court’s cap ruling

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that Mississippi’s $1 million cap on noneconomic damages arising from civil litigation does not violate the state constitution’s separation of powers clause does not necessarily mean state courts have to abide by the ruling.

The cap was considered the centerpiece of tort reform, with supporters saying it would guarantee businesses’ liability insurance premiums would remain reasonably priced and would also ensure predictability in jury awards.

Specifically, the Mississippi Supreme Court, if and when the cap is before it again, could rule differently than the Fifth Circuit.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court is not by anyway bound by the Fifth Circuit’s opinion,” said Matt Steffey, professor at Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson. “They may or may not find it persuasive.”

Steffey said the part of the Fifth Circuit’s opinion that referred to the disposition as an “eerie guess” means the court is supposing what state law will be. “It’s certainly not settling the matter,” he said.

The issue will likely reach the Mississippi Supreme Court in a way that it will be obligated to answer it, Steffey said, referring to the state court’s decision to pass on the issue last summer. “By that I mean it will be presented in such a way that it will be straight-forward constitutionally.”

“Even if the Mississippi Supreme Court is persuaded by the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning on the central issue of this appeal, and that is the inviolate right to the jury guarantee, that’s the central holding of the Fifth Circuit’s opinion, and maybe the Mississippi Supreme Court finds that persuasive and adopts it.”

A more likely scenario, Steffey said, is the state court taking a fresh look at the separation of powers argument, which was the central issue addressed by the Fifth Circuit, and deciding for themselves if the cap is in line with the state constitution.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court is often particularly attentive to issues that deal with its role in its branch of government,” Steffey said. The court could consider issues the Fifth Circuit did not, he added. “The Fifth Circuit did not address at all arguments based on due process or the Remedy Clause, and I suspect the Mississippi Supreme Court will engage those.”

The state court could rule in a number of ways, Steffey said. Justices could strike down the cap all together, they could rule that the Legislature could set any cap it deems fit, or it could decide that lawmakers could set a cap the court deems reasonable. At that point, the issue would be back before the Legislature to formulate a new cap. “But that option is the one that sounds the least like a rule of law,” Steffey said.

The case for those arguing for the cap before the state court will be bolstered by the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, Steffey said, calling it a “good arrow to have in the quiver.” But it still provides no guarantees.

“Again, this isn’t binding, although it might be persuasive, because there are certainly unsettled issues. It is slightly more settled than it was before, but it is far from settled completely.”

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