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State’s non-economic damages cap certified by Fifth Circuit

Mississippi’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages in civil cases has just been certified by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The question will now be before the Mississippi Supreme Court for the second time in a year.

In a ruling handed down yesterday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the constitutionality of the non-economic damages question to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The punitive damages cap was one of the centerpieces of the 2004 tort reform legislation.

The case this question arose from involved a woman, Lisa Learmonth, who had sued Sears and Roebuck Co. after she had been involved in an automobile collision with one of the company’s vans. A District Court jury found Sears liable for her injuries and awarded Learmonth $4 million in compensatory damages. The trial judge lowered the compensatory damages award to $1 million. Her attorneys appealed that to the Fifth Circuit; Sears’ attorneys appealed to the same court seeking a new trial, after the trial judge denied that motion.

In its ruling, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial judge’s decision to not grant Sears a new trial, and also affirmed the adjustment of the compensatory damages from $4 million to $1 million.

This is the second time in about a year that Mississippi’s constitutional cap on non-economic damages has undergone a legal challenge. In late winter of last year, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld $1 million in damages stemming from a premises liability case involving a Double Quick convenience store in Belzoni. A jury had awarded Ronnie Lee Lymas, who had been severely beaten outside of the Belzoni Double Quick, compensatory damages in excess of $1 million, but the same thing happened there as with the federal case: The trial judge adjusted the damages to conform with the $1 million cap.

That case, Double Quick Inc. v. Ronnie Lee Lymas, represented the first serious challenge to Mississippi’s constitutional cap since its inception in 2004. It drew amicus briefs on behalf of Double Quick from every business and trade group imaginable, and even one from Gov. Haley Barbour. The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Double Quick, but it did not clearly say that the damages cap was 100 percent in line with the state’s constitution; it did clearly answer the premises liability question.

What this Fifth Circuit ruling does, best we can tell, is leave the constitutionality of the compensatory damages cap to the Mississippi Supreme Court; and this time, there is no out like there was with the premises liability issue in the Double Quick case. The nine justices in Jackson will have to decide once and for all if the damages cap is constitutional. We have left a voicemail for a law professor we depend on to interpret such matters, and we’ll report what he says when we hear back.

Obviously, this latest ruling from the Fifth Circuit will draw plenty of attention from Mississippi’s legal community. You can read the ruling here.

UPDATED AT 11:55 A.M. : We just got off the phone with Matt Steffey, a professor at Mississippi College School of Law in Jackson. He confirmed what we wrote earlier, that the Mississippi Supreme Court has now been asked by the Fifth Circuit to determine the constitutionality of the damages cap.

But there is a catch.

“Theoretically, it is possible the Mississippi Supreme Court could decline to answer the question, or to not answer it totally and clearly,” Steffey said. “An out (like there was in the Double Quick case) would be much harder to come by, but it wouldn’t be impossible. Ordinarily you would expect the state Supreme Court to answer the question. I would think it’s likely they would.”

So there you have it. It will almost certainly be early summer before the Supreme Court hands down a ruling on this. In the meantime, the amicus brief from the same groups — and probably from Barbour, too — will fly into the Gartin Justice Building just like they did in the Double Quick case.

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