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Constitutionality of Mississippi’s Cap on Noneconomic Damages

Wednesday, April 17, 2013 @ 02:04 PM
Brian Montague

Those hoping for a final determination of the constitutionality of Mississippi’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages may be disappointed by the recent Learmonth and Learmonth II decisions out of the Fifth Circuit and Mississippi Supreme Court, respectively.  Despite some who characterize th0413ntlpulsewheel250pxe Fifth Circuit’s Learmonth decision as a “defeat for opponents of Mississippi’s noneconomic damages caps,” the question of whether such caps violate the Mississippi Constitution’s Due Process Clause or Remedy Clause remains unresolved by the Mississippi Supreme Court and even by the Fifth Circuit.

In Learmonth, a federal jury found Sears, Roebuck and Company liable for serious injuries resulting from an accident between Lisa Learmonth and a Sears truck.  The jury awarded Learmonth four million dollars in compensatory damages, which the Fifth Circuit found included approximately 2.2 million dollars in noneconomic damages.  In accordance with Miss. Code Ann. §11-01-60 (2), the district court later reduced the noneconomic damages to one million dollars as required by the statute.

The parties appealed, and the Fifth Circuit certified to the Mississippi Supreme Court the issue of the constitutionality of the statute.  The Mississippi Supreme Court declined to address the question, stating that neither party requested that the special interrogatory verdict form submitted to the jury include a jury finding on the amount of noneconomic damages to be awarded. Learmonth II, 95 So. 3d 633, 637 (Miss. 2012).

Though without guidance of Mississippi Supreme Court interpretation, the Fifth Circuit still took on the issues raised by opponents of the cap regarding deprivation of right to trial by jury and violation of separation of powers.  Noting that “under Mississippi Law, noneconomic damages are awarded to compensate a tort victim for various forms of psychic, emotional, and reputational injury [including pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and injury to reputation],” the Fifth Circuit found that “the legislature’s authority to alter personal injury remedies is consistent with its power to ‘set public policy’ in matters of Mississippi Tort law.”  Learmonth, 710 F. 3d 249, 261 (citing Pinnell v. Bates, 838 So. 2d 198, 202 (Miss. 2002)).

While the Fifth Circuit went on to find that the Mississippi statutory cap on noneconomic damages violated neither the right to jury nor separation of powers provisions of the Mississippi Constitution, the Fifth Circuit left an interesting crumb on the table when it said at the end of its opinion that “we believe that Learmonth has overlooked the possibility that, at least under some circumstances, the Mississippi Constitution’s Due Process Clause or Remedy Clause might impose substantive constraints on the legislature’s authority to cap compensatory damages.”   Learmonth, 710 F. 3d at 266.  The Fifth Circuit said that Learmonth had waived any due process or remedy clause challenge since she did not raise such arguments below and did not properly renew them on appeal.

This aspect of the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and Mississippi’s refusal to address the question of the statute’s constitutionality leave important issues unresolved and yet to be litigated.

Finally for an interesting discussion on how other state courts are dealing with this issue please see the recent article by David Hudson Jr. in the April 2013 addition of ABA Journal, entitled Flipping Caps (caps invalidated in Georgia, Missouri, but upheld in Kansas, elsewhere).

Written by Brian Montague

Brian Montague

A fourth generation Hattiesburg native, an Iraq and military veteran, and a 1983 graduate of the University of Mississippi Law School, Brian Montague has established an AV rated, well-respected neighborhood law practice focusing on trying cases in state and federal court, corporate and transactional work, insurance defense and coverage, personal injury and wrongful death, residential construction and development issues, and estate probate and administration.

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