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Litigation: 5th Circuit to rule on constitutionality of Mississippi's cap on noneconomic damages

Courts in Illinois, Georgia and Missouri have declared statutory damage caps unconstitutional in recent years

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit will soon address the constitutionality of Mississippi's statutory $1 million cap on noneconomic damages for civil cases. In Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Learmonth, the 5th Circuit certified the constitutionality question to the Mississippi Supreme Court; but the Mississippi Supreme Court ultimately declined to answer the question. The issue is now back before the 5th Circuit, with briefing to conclude on Dec. 3.

There have been several prior appellate challenges to the constitutionality of Mississippi's statutory cap, but to date those cases have either been resolved before an appellate court ruling or were decided on other grounds. And, although there are pending appeals before the Mississippi Supreme Court that also challenge the constitutionality of Mississippi's noneconomic damage caps, the 5th Circuit's Learmonth ruling is likely be the first opinion to be issued.

In Learmonth the plaintiff has argued that Mississippi's statutory damage cap violates the right to trial by jury and the separation of powers clauses of the Mississippi Constitution. These are similar to the challenges asserted in other cases. The constitutionality of statutory caps on noneconomic damages has been challenged in many jurisdictions with varying results. But overall most state supreme courts have upheld them as constitutional.

In recent years, a handful of courts in jurisdictions such as Illinois, Georgia and Missouri, have declared statutory damage caps unconstitutional. For example, earlier this summer, the Missouri Supreme Court, in Watts v. Cox Medical Centers, overturned its 20-year-old Adams v. Children's Mercy Hospital precedent to strike down Missouri's $350,000 damage cap.

In striking down caps, both the Missouri and Georgia courts simply ignored or dismissed contrary authority without meaningful analysis as "analytically irrelevant," "employ[ing] unpersuasive reasoning," or based on "less comprehensive constitutional jury trial provisions"—provisions, incidentally with little if any semantic distinctions from their own constitutions: "inviolate" (Kansas), "inviolable" (Maryland) or "sacred" (Virginia) in contrast to "inviolate" (Missouri and Georgia). In light of their reasoning, often in disregard of long-standing precedent, these decisions seem result-oriented.

But other courts, such as the Kansas Supreme Court in its recent Miller v Johnson decision and the Maryland Court of Appeals in DRD Pool Service, Inc. v. Freed, have considered and analyzed the constitutional challenges and affirmed established precedent.

Mississippi's Supreme Court has not directly addressed the constitutionality of section 11-1-60. Although Mississippi's constitution also contains the "inviolate" language, Mississippi jurisprudence long ago addressed and rejected the identical constitutional challenges now raised in Learmonth. In Walters v. Blackledge the court affirmed the constitutionality of workers' compensation law, a law which both denied the worker the "inviolate" right to have a jury determine damages and abolished a worker's common-law right to sue an employer or fellow employee. In so doing, the Walters court recognized that "a state legislature has full power to change or abolish existing common law remedies or methods of procedure."

Under Mississippi's high standard, a statute can only be struck down as unconstitutional "where it appears beyond all reasonable doubt that [it] violates the clear language of the constitution;" and the 5th Circuit is not considered activist. These caps were an important part of Mississippi's 2004 bipartisan tort reform. As Mississippi remains home to several venues which some have labeled “judicial hellholes," the Learmonth decision will be one to watch closely. 

Contributing Author

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David Maron

David F. Maron is a shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC (Birmingham). He concentrates his practice in defense of both government...

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