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Litigation: 5th Circuit upholds reduction of jury's non-economic damages award pursuant to Mississippi's statutory civil damage caps

Court found that this component of the state tort reform did not violate either the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee or separation of powers provisions

In November, my law partner David Maron previewed the anticipated decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Learmonth. In that decision, the 5th Circuit was poised to rule on the constitutionality of Mississippi's $1 million statutory damage caps on noneconomic damages after the Mississippi Supreme Court denied the 5th Circuit's certified question on constitutionality. The 5th Circuit rendered its decision on Feb. 27, and upheld the reduction of the plaintiff's jury award pursuant to the statutory cap, finding that this component of Mississippi's tort reform did not violate either the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee or separation of powers provisions, these being the only challenges sustained by the plaintiff to the caps on appeal (Lisa Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck and Co.). Due to the scope of the constitutional questions considered and the pendency of other challenges making their way to the Mississippi Supreme Court, further analysis of the Learmonth opinion is warranted in order to explore what the 5th Circuit has and has not analyzed and decided, and what future challenges to the statute may be forthcoming.

Preliminarily, it is important to note that, due to strategic decisions Learmonth made, the 5th Circuit considered and overruled constitutional arguments based solely on the arguments that the noneconomic damages cap violates the Mississippi Constitution's separation of powers provisions and dictates that the "right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate." Learmonth's challenges in the district court to the cap under the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and the Mississippi Constitution's Due Process Clause and Remedy Clause were not renewed. The court determined that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden to establish "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the statutory cap ran contrary to the applicable jury trial and separation of powers clauses.

More specifically, the 5th Circuit held that the imposition of the cap by the judge post-verdict does not impermissibly invade the jury's fact-finding role and, therefore, does not run afoul of the right to a trial by jury. Further, the court held that Learmonth failed to meet her burden to show that the Jury Trial Clause of the Mississippi Constitution contains within it a right to have the jury's undisturbed verdict converted to a binding judgment of equal value. As to the separation of powers arguments, the court determined that the statutory cap does not unconstitutionally infringe on judicial remittitur because, unlike remittitur, application of the statutory cap does not require any analysis of the adequacy or objectivity of the jury's factual findings. Nor was the 5th Circuit convinced by Learmonth's arguments that the legislative provision is facially invalid as an overreach of legislative authority into the procedural and substantive matters of the judiciary.

Interestingly, the 5th Circuit referred to some of Learmonth's separation of powers arguments as perhaps better framed as challenges under Mississippi's Due Process or Remedy Clauses, challenges waived by Learmonth in her appeal. Previewing anticipated further refinement of the constitutionality analysis regarding Mississippi's tort reform legislation, the Mississippi Supreme Court will be presented with the arguments upon which Sears prevailed in the 5th Circuit, as well as challenges to the noneconomic damages cap under the Due Process and Remedy Clauses in the context of two cases currently in post-trial motions.

In both Carter v. Interstate Realty Management and Tanner v. Eagle Oil, the trial courts have ruled that respective noneconomic damage awards of $6.5 million and $27 million cannot be reduced pursuant to the statutory cap because the cap is unconstitutional. The Carter court found the provision to violate the Remedy, Jury Trial and Separation of Powers Clauses, while the Tanner court upheld the jury's verdict on state separation of powers and state and federal Due Process grounds. It appears that both cases involve special, rather than general verdicts, removing the impediment that the Mississippi Supreme Court held to preclude review of the question certified by the 5th Circuit.

Contributing Author

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Emily Turner Landry

Emily Turner Landry is a shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC (Memphis).  She concentrates her practice in the defense of personal injury...

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