Mississippi Tort Reform Survives Fifth Circuit Ringer

By Robyn Hagan Cain on February 28, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The question of whether the Mississippi statutory cap on noneconomic damages violates the Mississippi separation of powers clause sounds like a question for a Mississippi court. But this week, it was the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that decided that the Mississippi tort reform statute didn't conflict with the state's constitution.

How does that work, you wonder? We'll explain.

Lisa Learmonth was seriously injured in a collision between her vehicle and a van operated by a Sears, Roebuck and Co. employee. She sued Sears in federal court, invoking diversity jurisdiction. A jury found Sears liable for causing Learmonth's injuries, and awarded her $4 million in compensatory damages. The district court denied Sears' motion for a new trial, but remitted the noneconomic damages portion of the award to $1 million pursuant to Mississippi's statutory cap on noneconomic damages. Learmonth challenged the constitutionality of the cap.

The Fifth Circuit certified the state constitutional question to the Supreme Court of Mississippi, which declined to answer the question because the issue was not "squarely presented" by the parties at trial. So the Fifth Circuit was left to decide the constitutionality of the state statute.

This week, the appellate court rejected Learmonth's constitutional challenge to the tort cap.

In a thorough opinion, the court explained that Learmonth failed to prove that the statutory cap was in conflict with the Mississippi Constitution's Jury Trial Clause, or that the common law jury guarantee includes the right to a judgment equal to the jury's damages finding. The court also found that the tort cap was not facially invalid as a legislatively promulgated procedural rule, and did not constitute legislative interference with judicial remittitur.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant praised the court's decision, saying, "Today is a good day for businesses across Mississippi because the Fifth Circuit has upheld an important protection against unpredictable and excessive damage awards. 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."

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