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.