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Tort to be tested by Supreme Court

The Mississippi Supreme Court building in Jackson. Photo by STEPHEN McDILL /  Mississippi Business Journal

The Mississippi Supreme Court building in Jackson. Photo by STEPHEN McDILL / Mississippi Business Journal

The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear arguments June 14 on the constitutionality of the state’s $1 million cap on punitive damages in civil jury awards.

The argument arose after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the question of the cap’s constitutionality to the Mississippi court.

The Fifth Circuit sent the question to the state court as part of the appeals process related to Sears and Roebuck Co. v. Lisa Learmonth.

That case was spawned after Learmonth was involved in a car accident in Monroe County with a Sears van, in which she suffered serious injuries. A federal court jury awarded Learmonth $4 million in compensatory damages, but the judge reduced the award to $1 million to comply with the damages cap, which was the centerpiece of the 2004 tort reform legislative package. Sears appealed to the Fifth Circuit seeking a new trial, contesting damages and liability in the accident. Learmonth’s attorneys cross-appealed the constitutionality of the damages cap. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial judge’s denial of a new trial, but sent the damages cap to the state Supreme Court.

Matt Steffey

Matt Steffey, a professor at Jackson’s Mississippi College School of Law, told the Mississippi Business Journal in an interview earlier this year that the decision by the Mississippi Supreme Court will almost assuredly settle the tort damages cap question.

The stakes are high, both for the business community and the state’s plaintiffs’ bar. Gov. Haley Barbour, who made tort reform the theme of his first campaign for governor, filed an amicus brief with the state court on behalf of Sears, saying that the removal of the punitive damages cap would return Mississippi to its pre-tort reform business climate he claims would drive existing industry out of the state and prevent new industry from showing up. It’s only the second time in his tenure as governor that Barbour has filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court.

The first came last year in Double Quick v. Ronnie Lee Lymas, a premises liability case in which justices ruled that businesses could not be held civilly liable for any injuries sustained by their customers on the outside premises. In that case, the Mississippi justices left open the question of the damages cap’s constitutionality.

In his brief, Barbour said the Legislature has the right to enact caps on non-economic damages that are part of a civil jury award.

“The limit on lawsuit awards and other tort reform initiatives have cleaned up Mississippi’s image as a ‘judicial hellhole’ with outrageous monetary awards,” Barbour said in a statement he released after filing the brief Feb. 28. “The non-economic damage caps and other tort reform measures leveled the playing field for all litigants, ensured fair and predictable results, averted a health care crisis and attracted new businesses to the State.”

Barbour’s was one of two briefs filed with the Court. The other came from the Mississippi Association for Justice, formerly the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, which filed on behalf of Learmonth.

Calls and emails to the MAJ last week failed to produce an interview with anybody from the organization.

Arguments will begin in the Supreme Court’s chambers at 10 a.m. June 14. Each side will have 45 minutes. Justices will issue a written ruling, most likely by the end of the year.

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