A state judge has declared a legislatively imposed cap on how much juries can award in non-economic damages unconstitutional.
Circuit Judge Charles Webster in Coahoma County issued the ruling April 20 in a 14-page opinion. He criticized the Legislature for intruding into judicial authority.
Webster’s ruling came in a motion filed by Cleveland attorney Ralph E. Chapman in lawsuit seeking damages in the death of a child in an apartment complex fire.
A Coahoma jury in September returned a verdict for the plaintiffs that included $6 million in non-economic damages. State law that went into effect in 2004 limits awards for non-economic damages to $1 million. The cap applies to what a jury can award for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on damages were adopted by Mississippi lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling over tort changes.
Chapman said that the plaintiffs sought the ruling on grounds the cap is unconstitutional.
“We never knew what the judge would do until we got the order. As far as I can tell it’s the first such order any trial judge has given on the issue. I do expect it to go before the Supreme Court,” Chapman said.
Greenville attorney Andrew N. Alexander III, representing the apartment complex owners, declined comment on the case. He said several motions remained to be addressed by the judge.
Webster noted in his ruling that a lawsuit addressing caps on non-economic damages is already pending before the Supreme Court.
However, he said the lawsuit dated back seven months and the parties in the case deserved a decision. Webster said he had agreed to hold off until Feb. 1, a deadline long passed. The Supreme Court has a number of appeals pending on tort changes.
But the main case is not really a case. It is a query.
Lisa Learmonth sued Sears, Roebuck and Co. after she was in a collision with one of the company’s vans near Philadelphia, Miss., in 2005
A federal jury in 2008 determined Sears was liable for Learmonth’s injuries and awarded $4 million in damages. The parties agreed $2.2 million was for non-economic damages, and the federal judge reduced that part of the damages to $1 million.
The case is pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. In January 2011, a 5th Circuit panel asked the Mississippi court if the $1 million cap is unconstitutional under state law.
How the Supreme Court decides to answer the question will affect the other cases, many in the business community and trade associations and lawyers believe and many of which have filed briefs.
Non-economic damages under Mississippi law do not include punitive damages.
There is no cap on damages for economic losses, such as how much the person could have expected to earn in his or her lifetime or for such things as continuing medical expenses.
Webster, in his ruling, said the Mississippi Constitution guarantees every citizen a remedy for an injury done to his lands, goods, person and reputation with that remedy to be determined by a jury.
“The issue is not whether the limits imposed under the statute are reasonable. Rather, the issue is whether the Legislature has the authority to impose any limits, reasonable or not,” Webster wrote.
Webster said the framers of the constitution created the civil justice system and put the courts in charge of it.
Webster said the rights of a person to a remedy for an injury and to have that decided by a jury include the assessment of damages.
“Rights guaranteed by through the constitution may be changed, limited and/or removed. However, they cannot be changed, limited and/or removed by legislative enactment. There is a process by which such might occur — it is through amendment to the constitution,” Webster wrote.
The issue of tort changes was not raised in the 2012 Legislature.