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Archive for February, 2013

Federal appeals court rules state’s tort cap does not violate separation of powers

February 27th, 2013 1 comment

Wednesday morning, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals 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.

To read the entire opinion, click here.

Alabama Senate panel tries to squeeze Airbus jobs out of Miss., Florida

February 26th, 2013 No comments

When Mobile, Ala., was selected as the site for a $600 million Airbus manufacturing facility, there was optimism that South Mississippi could land a supplier or two.

The Alabama Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday made that less likely when members advanced legislation that would limit lawsuits against aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers. The bill would establish a 12-year window on litigation related to aircraft with more than 100 seats. The clock would start once the aircraft is delivered. Alabama law currently puts no such restriction on aircraft-related litigation. In Mississippi, there is a 20-year statute of repose, in which no litigation pertaining to an aircraft is allowed even if a design or other kind of defect leads to an injury or a fatality.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley told the Associated Press in that state that the legislation is specifically designed to keep Airbus suppliers out of Mississippi and Florida. Suppliers are estimated to create nearly 4,000 jobs.

The three states were part of an alliance that pursued the massive project a few years ago. The manufacturing facility, which will employ 1,000 at full production, is scheduled to start operation in 2015. Officials estimate it will produce between 40 and 50 aircraft per year by 2018.

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Report: Levees prevented $234 billion in damages in 2011 flood

February 25th, 2013 No comments

The levees along the Mississippi River and its backwater tributaries generally did what they were supposed to do during the 2011 flood.

In the process, they prevented $234 billion in damages.

Those were two major takeaways from a pair of documents the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released Monday.

Data collection for The Mississippi River & Tributaries 2011 Post-Flood Report and Room for the River started in August 2011, about two months after the worst of the record-breaking flood, and concluded last December. The 350-page MR&T report documents the levees’ performance during the flood, and recommends ways to re-strengthen and improve the system. Room for the River is a 32-page summary of what the Vicksburg office of the Corps calls “facts, figures and lessons” officials learned during the high-water event.

Both documents can be viewed here.

On the whole, Corps officials said during and after the flood that the levee system – constructed after the 1927 flood whose water-level records the 2011 flood surpassed – did what it was designed to do. These two documents, they say, provide data to validate that claim.

The impact in Mississippi stretched almost the length of the state’s western border, formed by the river. Flooding shuttered casinos in Tunica, closed river operations in Greenville and Vicksburg and inundated farmland in the South Delta along the Yazoo River.

Aerospace group: Sequestration could cost Mississippi 11,000 jobs

February 22nd, 2013 No comments

The list of potential damage estimates attached to sequestration continues to grow.

Friday, the Aerospace Industries Association said that if the automatic spending cuts set to trigger March 1 actually happen, it could cost Mississippi 11,000 jobs and almost $1.2 billion in gross state product.

Spending cuts have been pegged at $1.2 trillion over a decade, a lot of it coming out of the defense budget that funds aerospace initiatives like Hancock County’s Stennis Space Center.

AIA president and CEO Marion Blakey said in a press release that this weekend’s meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington serves as a good opportunity for state chief executives to illustrate the effects sequestration will have on state economies.

“With little time to act, this weekend provides states the opportunity to make their voices heard at the White House and in Congress, where leaders have yet to begin serious negotiations about avoiding an economic nightmare that will have a negative impact nationwide.”

The AIA issued a report last summer that said sequestration would result in more than 2 million overall jobs being lost in defense, construction, education, healthcare and manufacturing sectors.

The AIA’s alarmism isn’t shared by former Gov. Haley Barbour.

Barbour, who left office in 2012, told a cable news channel earlier this week that he hoped congressional Republicans would allow sequestration to go through, saying it was the only way to “start down a path of trying to get control of spending and reduce the deficit.”

The automatic spending cuts were part of the 2011 debt ceiling compromise the White House and Congress brokered. The cuts were designed to be so severe that it would force lawmakers – specifically, the GOP-controlled House – to work out a deal with President Obama and his allies in the Democratic-led Senate.

The two sides haven’t gotten far in negotiations, and others are starting to share Barbour’s belief that it’s likely the cuts will go into effect.

General Dynamics IT to open call center in Hattiesburg

February 20th, 2013 No comments

Less than two weeks after a tornado tore through Hattiesburg and  Petal, state and local officials gathered to announce that General Dynamics Information Technology will open a call center within the city the next two months.

The call center will create 225 jobs by this summer, and 250 by April 2014. The new location, set for the 17,000 square-foot Cloverleaf Building on Highway 49 south, will be operational by April of this year and will support General Dyamics’ work with the U.S. Dept. of Education’s federal student aid program.

The Mississippi Development Authority is providing $150,000 in ACE money, taken from a fund the MDA uses to help local economic development entities like Hattiesburg’s Area Development Partnership lure projects. The company will also receive local and state tax incentives and workforce training assistance.

General Dynamics, a Fortune 100 company headquartered in Falls Church, Va., employees nearly 100,000 people worldwide. The company is involved in a number of aviation and marine systems, including land and expeditionary systems, armaments and munitions; shipbuilding and IT systems.

General Dynamics IT is headquartered in Fairfax, Va., employs 21,000 people worldwide and provides systems engineering, professional services and simulation training to a number of private and government agencies, including the defense industry, healthcare, homeland security and intelligence communities.

The center will act as a processing center for federal student aid applications, Marcus Collier, General Dynamics IT senior vice president of health and civilian solutions division. In 2012, Collier said, a similar center processed a total of 12 million applications. “We’ve been supporting the Department of Education on this program since 1985,” Collier said.

A majority of the 225 jobs will be customer service representatives and call center supervisors, Collier said.

“We are going to make sure this great company is so excited about being part of the Pine Belt, Hattiesburg and Southern Miss,” Gov. Phil Bryant told an audience of a couple hundred people at Hattiesburg’s Lake Terrace Convention Center.

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Business officials push for RESTORE Act funds to pay for ecosystem restoration

February 19th, 2013 No comments

A group of 120 business leaders have signed a letter urging that money allocated under the RESTORE Act be used to rebuild the Gulf Coast’s ecosystem after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The RESTORE Act became law last summer. It directs 80 percent of the Clean Water Act fines BP and other companies connected to the spill will pay to states that border the Gulf of Mexico.

Total payments are expected to be more than $20 billion, and are intended to fund efforts to restore the Gulf’s ecosystem. The Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which includes governors of Gulf States, will allocate the money.

The business leaders’ letter – sent Tuesday to the five Gulf states governors, including Gov. Phil Bryant – says the money should be used for environmental restoration, not diverted elsewhere.

“Right now, there is a remarkable opportunity to restore the Gulf, to strengthen its traditional industries, spur innovation, accelerate emerging markets centered on environmental restoration and promote new prosperity,” says a press release accompanying the letter. It cites a 2010 study done by economic consultants in Georgia that says $20 billion in RESTORE Act money could create almost 57,000 jobs in the Gulf region.

“These restoration projects create a demand for work from a wide variety of companies in the engineering, construction, transportation and manufacturing sectors,” Thomas Matthews, of Pass Christian-based marine specialty construction firm Matthews Brothers  Inc., said in the release. “As one of the first firms to win a contract on a post-BP spill environmental restoration project in Mississippi, I have witnessed firsthand that investments in coastal restoration can mean jobs for coastal workers and economic growth for local businesses and communities.”

The 2010 spill sent over the course of three months almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf, which breaks down to about 210 million gallons. The worst damage in Mississippi came around the Barrier Islands that sit a few miles south of the shore. It’s considered the worst manmade environmental disaster in history, and came less than five years after Hurricane Katrina, considered the worst natural disaster ever.

Toyota settles unintended acceleration claims

February 18th, 2013 No comments

Attorney General Jim Hood announced Monday morning Mississippi was one of 29 states to settle with Toyota Motor Corp. related to unintended acceleration issues in some of the company’s vehicles.

Mississippi will receive $561,288 of the $29 million Toyota will pay to settle consumer protection claims. Toyota will also be banned from advertising safety features of its vehicles without what a press release from Hood’s office calls “sound engineering data to back such safety claims.”

Mississippi and the 28 other states claimed during the litigation that Toyota had engaged in unfair and deceptive practices when the company failed to timely disclose known safety defects with accelerator pedals.

“Our investigation led us to determine poor communication between Toyota’s nerve center in Japan and Toyota’s United States holdings were partially responsible for Toyota’s failure to report known safety issues in a timely manner,” Hood is quoted as saying in the release.

In addition, the settlement provides that Toyota is:

• Prohibited from reselling a vehicle it reacquired with alleged safety defects without informing the purchaser about the alleged defect(s) and certifying that the reacquired vehicle has been fixed

• Prohibited from misrepresenting the purpose of an inspection or repair when directing consumers to bring their vehicles to a dealer for inspection or repair

• Required to exclude from the “Toyota Certified Used Vehicles” or “Lexus Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles” categories any vehicle acquired through lemon law proceedings or voluntarily repurchased by Toyota to ensure customer satisfaction.

Consumers who have questions about restitution related to the settlement can call one of two hotlines Toyota has set up. For Toyota vehicles, call 800-331-4331. For Lexus vehicles, call 800-255-3987.

Lines are staffed from 8 a.m. CST to 8 p.m. CST Monday thru Friday, and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. CST to 6 p.m. CST.

Toyota settled late last year separate litigation related to the same issues. The company agreed to pay out $1.1 billion, and to set up a fund that would retrofit affected vehicles with technology to counter the unintended acceleration.

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Miss. Supreme Court asks for more briefs related to Baseload Act

February 14th, 2013 No comments

The Mississippi Supreme Court asked Thursday afternoon for additional briefs related to a Hattiesburg resident’s constitutional challenge to the Baseload Act.

The ruling comes after a Jan. 28 hearing in which Thomas Blanton’s attorney told seven of the court’s justices that the Act – which was passed in 2008 and allows utilities to charge customers for generation facilities as they are being built – is unconstitutional because it violates the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which prevents confiscatory taking of property without due process.

Mississippi Power attorneys argued in the same hearing that the law allows for utilities to increase rates for used and useful services, and the facilities the Act is designed to pay for are the benefit customers receive.

The hearing was the result of a rate dispute between the PSC and Mississippi Power related to the Kemper coal plant. The two entities settled that less than a week before the hearing. In Thursday’s order, the high court accepted the settlement and dismissed that case.

The court said the briefs it ordered will have to address five issues:

  1. Whether Blanton’s challenge to the Baseload Act is moot.
  2. Whether his challenge is ripe for the court to consider
  3. Whether the Baseload Act provides for an unconstitutional tax, as Blanton’s lawyer alleged Jan. 28.
  4. Whether the Baseload Act is otherwise unconstitutional
  5. Whether Blanton was accorded due process

Attorneys for Blanton, Mississippi Power Co. and the Mississippi Public Service Commission have 20 days from Feb. 12 to submit their briefs.

SMART Business Act moves forward before Thursday deadline

February 12th, 2013 No comments

The Strengthening Mississippi Academic Research Through (SMART) Business Act has passed the Senate ahead of the next major legislative deadline.

The bill would offer a 25 percent rebate to businesses that contract with Mississippi universities for qualified research. It’s one piece of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s legislative agenda.

The rebates for one business are capped at $1 million, and are capped overall at $5 million per year.

Hosemann said the legislation would fill some of the gap left by disappearing federal research funds, and help to strengthen the partnership between the business community and Mississippi colleges and universities.

The Senate Finance Committee did insert a reverse repealer into the bill, which is a mechanism used to keep alive the legislation before a deadline, like this Thursday’s deadline for floor action on original legislation. It’s also a way to ensure the legislation ends up in a conference committee.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was the lone “no” vote. The bill is Senate Bill 2537.

Tornado clean-up starts in Hattiesburg, Petal

February 11th, 2013 No comments

The clean-up from Sunday’s tornado in Hattiesburg and Petal started Monday morning.

The storm hit during mid-afternoon, caused extensive damage to residential areas and business districts and to the campus of University of Southern Mississippi.

Almost 100 injuries had been reported, but no deaths. More than 300 buildings had some degree of damage, a lot of it major, according to emergency officials.

Mississippi Power Co. said as of Monday morning, 4,000 of its customers were without electricity, and 100 power poles were broken.

In a news release, Mississippi Power Pine Belt division manager Jason Lee said at its peak Sunday, 13,000 customers had no power. More than 300 of the company’s linemen, engineers and tree-removal crews were on the ground.

“We are working on the hardest hit areas first,” Lee said, “which has been challenging due to the continuous rain, wind and scattered debris blocking access to troubled areas.”

Monday’s forecast for the Hattiesburg area called for rain to continue through most of the daylight hours.

The Salvation Army also started setting up feeding and relief stations in Petal and Hattiesburg.

Six mobile units were active by 11 a.m. Monday:

* Petal Harvey Baptist Church

* The Highway 49/Hardy Street intersection

* Forrest County Multi-purpose Center

* A roving unit in Oak Grove

* Lowe’s parking lot on Hardy Street

* Residential areas east of the USM campus

Donations are accepted at donate.salvationarmyusa.org/uss/disaster or by calling 1-800-SAL-ARMY. You can also text “Give” to 80888.