By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The group that pushed changes to the civil justice system through the Mississippi Legislature a decade ago says the fight to preserve many of those key changes now rests with the state Supreme Court.
Former Gov. Haley Barbour and others involved in the changes made to the civil justice system held a conference in Jackson on Wednesday to look back at the changes made in a 2004 special session and to look ahead.
Barbour said the key issue moving forward is for the state Supreme Court to rule on whether the $1 million cap on noneconomic damages (also known as pain and suffering) is constitutional. Some judges, such as in Coahoma County, have ruled that the Legislature did not have the authority in 2004 to impose a cap on non economic damages – $1 million in general civil cases and $500,000 in medical civil cases.
“We have to remain vigilant,” said Mississippi Economic Council President Blake Wilson, who was involved in the effort to enact the laws to curb the ability of businesses to file lawsuits. Wilson said Mississippi, based on various studies, now has some of the toughest laws in the country in terms of curbing the ability to file lawsuits, but said there must be efforts to preserve that ranking or even improve upon it.
Barbour, in his first year in office in 2004, was successful in pushing changes to the civil justice system through the Legislature in special session. At the time, the issue was contentious with some claiming lawsuit abuse was occurring in Mississippi because of various laws, such as judges allowing multiple claims against a company to be incorporated into one lawsuit in what was viewed as a friendly jurisdiction for the plaintiff.
Actually, changes to the civil justice system began in 2002 in an 83-day special session that capped noneconomic damages in medical cases and incorporated some caps on punitive damages. The Supreme Court also issued rulings limiting the ability of cases to be joined together.
The 2004 special session, added to those changes, including capping pain and suffering awards in all cases.
Some argue the changes went too far and limited the access to the courts for people who had suffered legitimate injuries.
But Barbour said that is not true and that no cap was placed on actual damages.
He also said he is eager for the Supreme Court to rule on the issue of whether the Legislature has the authority to set caps. He believes that it does have that authority.