Waiting game begins for damages cap fight
The Mississippi Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments about the constitutionality of the state’s $1 million cap on non-economic damages in civil cases.
It’s a case whose decision will affect with equal extreme Mississippi’s business community and its plaintiffs’ bar.
The case that spawned Tuesday’s hearing – Sears & Roebuck Co. v. Lisa Learmonth – centers on a car wreck involving Learmonth, the plaintiff, who claims she was injured when she collided with a Sears van driven by one of the company’s employees. Learmonth was awarded about $4 million in punitive damages in the federal court trial, but the trial judge reduced that amount to conform with the $1 million cap. Learmonth’s attorneys appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in an attempt to get the jury’s verdict as it related to the $4 million punitive damages upheld; Sears cross-appealed asking for a new trial, claiming it wasn’t liable for the accident in which Learmonth was injured. The Fifth Circuit then certified the constitutionality of the cap to the Mississippi court.
Keeping intact the separation of powers and the right to a jury trial were the cornerstones of the arguments made by Learmonth’s attorneys.
“A recovery cannot be limited by hamstringing a jury,” said Kevin Hamilton, of Meridian. The damages cap is separate from “statutory creatures” like the Tort Claims Act and the guidelines for settling a worker’s compensation claim, both of which have limits on punitive damage payments.
Frank Citera, who represented Sears at the hearing, said the cap does not remove a remedy for a plaintiff. It simply sets “an outer limit” for a remedy a jury can award.
Justice Jim Kitchens, asked Citera, “Who is this cap working for? The business community? It’s not working for people with catastrophic injuries.”
The cap was the centerpiece of 2004’s tort reform, which Gov. Haley Barbour made the cornerstone of his first campaign. Barbour and business associations and trade groups said the cap’s removal would return Mississippi to the reputation the state had pre-tort reform as a judicial hellhole. Opponents have built their rebuttal around the constitutionality of the cap, claiming that the Legislature has no authority to tell juries how much to award or not to award in civil cases.