The case is Learmouth v. Sears Roebuck and Company and stems from a Neshoba County car accident near Philadelphia in which Lisa Learmouth's car was involved in a collision with a Sears van driven by James McClelland near the intersection of Hwy. 15 and Hwy. 485.
Tort reform has been the state's most political grudge match between trial lawyers on one side and the business/medical community on the other. Mississippi lawmakers made significant changes in the civil justice system during the administration of former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. During Gov. Haley Barbour's first term in 2004, the Legislature put even stronger lawsuit damage limits into the law.
The first significant challenge came after a 2008 Humphreys County jury awarded a 37-year-old Belzoni resident Ronnie Lee Lymas $4.17 million in actual and punitive damages after he was shot eight times in the back during an altercation in the parking lot of the Double Quick convenience store in Belzoni in 2007.
That award came after the 2004 tort reforms enacted after Barbour called a special session in 2004 that resulted in limits of $500,000 on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases and $1 million in most other lawsuits.
So the judge in the Lymas case reduced the jury award to $1 million in punitive damages and $670,000 in actual damages. On appeal to the state Supreme Court, the constitutionality of the non-economic damage caps were not adjudicated as the court held that Lymas failed to prove that Double Quick bore any responsibility for his injuries - making his challenge to the damage cap a moot point.
While the state's elected Supreme Court avoided ruling on the question of constitutionality in the Lymas case, it's unlikely the court can do so in the Learmouth case. At trial, the jury found Sears liable for Learmouth's extensive injuries and awarded her $4 million in damages with both sides agreeing that the award could be divided as $1.2 million in lost wages, $573,000 in past and future medical expenses and some $2.2 million in non-economic damages. Mississippi's U.S. District Court reduced the non-economic damages to the state's $1 million damage cap.
Sears appealed the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans seeking a new trial, which the court denied. But Learmouth appealed the federal district judge's reduction of the non-economic damage award to $1 million - prompting the 5th Circuit to ask the state Supreme Court for the ruling on the constitutionality of the state's $1 million non-economic damage cap.
Here's where the state Supreme Court's ruling could get dicey. Mississippi still elects appellate court judges. Tort reform remains one of the bedrock issues for Republicans and conservatives. Supreme Court justices who rule that the legislatively mandated damage caps are unconstitutional will meet that issue on the street as soon as their next election cycle.
That fact will reignite the financial and political war between the trial lawyers and the business/medical community. State damage caps have been tested in a number of states in the federal courts and generally, those caps have been ruled constitutional. It will be interesting in the extreme to see how the state Supreme Court rules on the Learmouth case and then to watch the 5th Circuit's take on that ruling.
The outcome could have a profound impact on Mississippi politics and the state's judiciary.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or email@example.com.