NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) -- A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that Mississippi's $1 million limit on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases is constitutional.
In Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., a federal jury found Sears liable for causing Lisa Learmonth's injuries in an automobile accident.
In a general verdict, the jury awarded her $4 million in compensatory damages.
On Sears' motion, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi interpreted the award to include $2.2 million in noneconomic damages, then reduced this portion of the award to $1 million pursuant to the state's statutory cap on noneconomic damages.
Learmonth appealed, arguing that the cap violates the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions.
The state's separate $500,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases was not at issue.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2011 found that the verdict, after application of the statutory limit, was not excessive and certified Learmonth's constitutional challenge to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
However, the Court declined the certified question, concluding that the amount of noneconomic damages determined by the trial court and stipulated to by the parties was speculative.
As a result, the federal appeals court was forced to address the merits of Learmonth's appeal and issue a decision.
Judge Carolyn Dineen King authored the Fifth Circuit's 25-page opinion.
The court, first, disposed of Learmonth's argument that the cap could not be applied to a general verdict, finding that she had waived that argument.
It also found that Learmonth failed to establish a constitutional violation.
In particular, there was no violation of the right to trial by jury under the state constitution, the Fifth Circuit ruled.
Learmonth had argued that the cap infringes on two rights encompassed by the jury guarantee: (1) the right to have a jury alone find the proper compensatory damages amount and (2) the right to have that factual finding converted, undisturbed, into a legally binding judgment of equal value.
"Although the first right surely exists within the jury guarantee, Learmonth has not proven that § 11-1-60(2)(b) violates this right," King wrote. "As to the second right, Learmonth has failed to establish 'beyond a reasonable doubt' that it exists as part of the jury guarantee."
The Fifth Circuit also rejected the reasoning of a minority of courts that have struck down noneconomic damages caps as violating the right to trial by jury, finding that "this line of decisions seems to contradict 'the usual notion that the law prescribes the remedy and its measure.'"
The court also shot down the plaintiff's contention that language in Mississippi's Constitution stating that right to jury trial as "inviolate" doomed the cap.
"A comparison of state high court decisions shows that a jury guarantee's 'inviolability' is not dispositive of the question before us," King wrote. "Moreover, 'inviolability' simply means that the jury right is protected absolutely in cases where it applies; the term does not establish what that right encompasses."
The court also ruled that there was no violation of separation of powers.
"Learmonth's argument proves too much. By its very nature, nonprocedural law affects judicial functions. The legislature's definition of civil and criminal causes of action, for example, alters the elements a jury or judge must consider to find liability or grant summary judgment," King explained.
"To accept that the constitutional separation of powers prohibits the legislature from limiting a legal remedy would be to prohibit the legislature from enacting practically any change to substantive law."
The judge added, "Moreover, by Learmonth's logic, the legislature would be prohibited even from limiting tort damages after abrogating and replacing a common law cause of action, which she concedes is a valid legislative act."
Attorneys Frank Citera, Greg Ostfeld and Tanisha Reed of international law firm Greenberg Traurig represented Sears in the appeal.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.