Mississippi Yearning: A Twist in the Damage Cap Challenge
Turns out the Mississippi Supreme Court has asked for supplemental briefing in the Sears Roebuck & Co. v. Learmonth appeal. This is the case where Lisa Learmonth was injured by a negligent Sears driver. A Federal Jury awarded her $4 million. But the jury did not apportion the damages as between economic losses (wages, medical expenses) and non-economic losses (mental anguish, disability, loss of capacity to enjoy life, pain and suffering). The latter damages, non-economic losses, are capped in Mississippi at $1 million. The evidence of economic damages totaled $1.8 million. So, Sears and Ms. Learmonth stipulated in federal court that the non-economic award was $2.2 million, and because Mississippi caps those damages, the trial court reduced that component of the award to $1 million, the amount of the cap. Then, Ms. Learmonth appealed the reduction on the grounds that the cap is un-constitutional. The case was fully briefed and argued to the Mississippi Supreme Court last June. Now the Court wants clarity: why should it accept the stipulation that the non-economic jury award exceeded the statutory cap? It asked Sears to submit its brief by October 17, 2011 (last Monday).
What is the Court up to? Is it getting ready to punt? To avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the cap on the grounds that this case does not fairly present the issue? Or is it seeking to commit Sears to the position that this issue is properly before the Court so that, in the event the Court rules against Sears, Sears will have no grounds for reconsideration later? More cynically, is this an attempt to postpone ruling until after this year’s elections? Or is this an attempt to entice a settlement from the parties thereby relieving the Court of the heavy lifting? I think the Court is grappling with this issue, afraid of the political consequences a decision would produce, and aware that all logic militates against caps, in favor of declaring them unconstitutional. I wish the Court, and others in states where this issue is ripe, would just have the courage to do the right thing already! Mississippians, and citizens all over the country, are yearning for a return to fairness. Corporations should not have a monopoly on legal rights or on access to justice in this country.
Here is the Mississippi Supreme Court’s Order: