Miss. SC declines to answer noneconomic damages question

Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 24, 2012, 11:15am



JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The Mississippi Supreme Court declined Thursday to answer a question, certified to it by a federal appeals court, over whether the state's limit on noneconomic damages is constitutional.

"After considering the briefs and arguments and reviewing the entire record presented, we conclude that, because the 'trier of fact' (the jury) entered a general verdict of $4 million, we cannot know with any degree of assurance that 'they' (the jury) awarded Learmonth more than $1 million for noneconomic damages," Justice Michael Randolph wrote for the Court majority.

In August 2005, Lisa Learmonth sustained severe injuries in an auto/truck collision with a vehicle owned by Sears, Roebuck and Company and driven by an employee.

Learmonth filed suit against Sears in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Eastern Division. The jury returned a unanimous general verdict for Learmonth in the amount of $4 million.

The special interrogatory and jury verdict form submitted to the jury did not instruct the jury to itemize the compensatory damages into separate categories.

In Sears' post-trial motion for new trial, or alternatively, for a remittitur, it posited that $2,218,905.60 of the jury verdict was for noneconomic damages. Learmonth used the same figure in post-trial responses.

Sears' figure was accepted by both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in their respective analyses.

Regarding Sears' motion for a new trial, the district court held that it "cannot conclude that the jury verdict is so excessive, so 'contrary to right reason,' as to warrant a new trial or remittitur."

Nonetheless, based on Mississippi Code Section 11-1-60(2)(b), the district court remitted $2,218,905.60 of the verdict to $1 million, and entered judgment for $2,781,094.40.

Sears appealed that judgment to the Fifth Circuit.

Learmonth cross-appealed and challenged the constitutionality of Section 11-1-60(2)(b) under the separation-of-powers and right-to-jury-trial provisions of the Mississippi Constitution.

The Fifth Circuit found that this was an "important question of state law... for which there is no controlling precedent from the Supreme Court of Mississippi."

The appeals court then certified the following question to the state's high court: "Is Section 11-1-60(2) of the Mississippi Code, which generally limits non-economic damages to $1 million in civil cases, constitutional?"

The Court majority, in its 11-page ruling, said it didn't have enough information to answer the question.

"Our ruling upon the constitutionality of Section 11-1-60(2)(b) in this case would require engaging in 'speculation[,]' 'conjecture[,]' 'supposition[,]' and guesswork regarding 'what amount the jury [may have] awarded in economic damages and what amount it [may have] awarded in noneconomic damages,'" Randolph wrote.

"While the Fifth Circuit is bound only by Mississippi substantive law, we decline to answer a certified constitutional question outside the clear context of its application."

The majority noted that the "form" of the "constitutional contention" presented is "hardly concrete."

"What the jury should have, could have, may have, and/or possibly accepted as worthy evidence, and the component parts of their resulting general verdict, is known only to them," Randolph wrote.

"For this court, post-trial pleadings and arguments based on Sears' hypotheses are not a sufficiently reliable basis for us to undertake a decision declaring Section 11-1-60(2)(b) constitutional or unconstitutional."

The justice continued, "Had Sears taken the precautionary step to query the jury regarding the amount of noneconomic damages in a special interrogatory or special verdict, then we would possess knowledge of this indispensable element, required to exist before the statutory limitation is considered.

"Absent knowledge of the jury's finding, we lack the omniscient power to ascertain what we consider an essential, contested, requisite fact, contrary to the dissent's assertion otherwise."

Presiding Justice Jess H. Dickinson, the lone dissenter, said the Court should address and answer the question.

"It is disturbing that what seems so clear to me appears to the majority as 'apples and
oranges,'" he wrote.

"The jury was instructed on all the elements of damages -- economic and noneconomic -- it was allowed to award.

"Since the total amount of economic damages requested and proved was $1,781,094.42, the jurors could not have awarded more than that, unless they failed to follow their instructions. And all that was left above that number was noneconomic damages."

Dickinson continued, "So it is a mathematical fact that they either awarded $2,218,905.60 in noneconomic damages or they failed to follow their instructions. And it is well-settled that we presume juries follow their instructions."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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