The owners of a Belzoni convenience store shouldn’t be liable after a man was shot and wounded in its parking lot, attorneys for the business told the Mississippi Supreme Court this week.
Justices heard arguments in the appeal of a civil lawsuit stemming from the 2007 shooting.
Ronnie Lee Lymas sued Double Quick Inc. after he was shot while leaving a store in Belzoni, claiming the company didn’t do enough to ensure customers’ safety.
Lymas’ attorneys said he was a customer at the store when he was shot in the back eight times on Jan. 26, 2007, in the parking lot.
According to the lawsuit, an altercation started among people on the store’s property and shots were fired, striking Lymas repeatedly. Lymas said in the suit that he didn’t know the individuals involved in the argument that prompted the shooting.
A Humphreys County jury in 2008 awarded Lymas $4.17 million. The award was reduced to $1.67 million by the trial judge, who threw out all non-compensatory damages more than $1 million — the cap in Mississippi law since 2004.
The jury award came after charges were dropped against the suspect in Lymas’ shooting because witnesses said he fired in self-defense.
Attorneys for Double Quick told the court that Lymas should not be allowed to collect when no civil liability occurred.
At the same time, John Henegan of Jackson, the store’s attorney, said the trial judge followed Mississippi law in reducing the jury award.
“There is no right to recover for a tort that did not happen,” Henegan said.
Lymas’ attorney, Joe Tatum of Jackson, said the judge’s action took the case out of the jury’s hands.
The members of the jury “were in the best possible position to judge what his damages were. We believe the caps take away the jury’s right to award the damages proven at trial,” Tatum said.
Tatum said the Supreme Court should declare the caps unconstitutional.
Henegan said the caps don’t affect the jury’s responsibility to decide liability. He said the law reflects the desire of the people of Mississippi, through their elected representatives, to limit what can be awarded for certain torts.
The case has been watched as a test of Mississippi limits on civil liabilities. Republican Gov. Haley Barbour and dozens of trade groups, including the Mississippi Farm Bureau and the National Federation of Independent Business, have lined up against Lymas.
Barbour said in a statement issued after the arguments Tuesday: “Runaway jury awards contributed to the climate of jackpot justice that made our state an unfriendly place to do business, costing us countless jobs.”
Barbour said limiting liability has helped Mississippi’s economy.
Henegan told justices the trial judge erred in allowing the jury to consider lists of alleged incidents that occurred at or near the Belzoni store, suggesting an “atmosphere of violence” existed in the area.
“What has to be looked at is the incident itself,” Henegan said, noting the inclusion of crime statistics prejudiced the case against Double Quick.
Tatum countered that the shooters had argued in the parking lot in plain sight of store employees who could have called police to get the men to leave. He also said the two shooters were well known in the community for past violent incidents and that should have raised concerns among store workers.
Henegan said there was no way store employees could have know or predicted that some violent incident was about to occur.