Court refuses to decide constitutionality of state damages cap
■ Physicians are disappointed that a technical issue kept the Supreme Court of Mississippi from deciding whether jury award limits are fair.
In an uncommon move, the Supreme Court of Mississippi has declined to answer whether the state’s noneconomic damages cap in civil cases is constitutional. After hearing oral arguments and reviewing legal briefs, the state high court said it didn’t have enough information to decide the limit’s validity.
Mississippi has a $1 million noneconomic damages cap in general liability cases and a $500,000 noneconomic damages limit in medical liability cases.
The 6-1 ruling leaves the caps intact, but health professionals and Mississippi businesses say that without the state high court’s constitutional affirmation, the limits’ future remains in limbo.
“We were surprised that [the court] did not answer the certified question, particularly given how long it took them to issue a decision,” said Frank Citera, an attorney for Sears, Roebuck & Co., the defendant in the case. “It creates uncertainty going forward. It seems to suggest the court is either struggling with the issue or wants to avoid ruling on the issue, which can’t be good if you’re trying to predict what malpractice premiums are going to be in two or three years.”
The case involved an automobile accident in which a jury awarded Lisa Learmonth $4 million against Sears, $2.2 million of which went toward noneconomic damages. She sustained serious injuries in an accident with a Sears-owned vehicle. A judge reduced the award to $1 million in accordance with state law.
Learmonth appealed the reduction, arguing that the damages cap violated the separation of powers doctrine and a plaintiff’s trial rights. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the question to the Supreme Court of Mississippi, saying the cap’s constitutionality “was an important question of state law & for which there is no controlling precedent from the Supreme Court of Mississippi.”
The Mississippi State Medical Assn. filed a friend-of-the-court brief with businesses and health care organizations that urged the court to uphold the cap. Doctors and medical liability insurers were concerned that if the $1 million limit was struck down, the $500,000 cap for medical liability cases also would fall.
The state high court accepted the case, hearing oral arguments in June 2011. On Aug. 23, the court issued a decision that disappointed both parties.
Judges said that because jurors had not separated economic from noneconomic damages in their verdict, the court could not rely on Sears’ calculations after the fact. After the $4 million verdict, Sears claimed that $2.2 million was for noneconomic damages and that amount was accepted by the lower courts.
“The constitutionality of a statute is not to be addressed abstractly, speculatively or in the manner of an academic discussion, but rather in the context of its clear application,” the court said. “As we conclude that the issue was not ‘squarely presented’ by the parties, our consideration of the certified question is foreclosed, and the request to answer the certified question is declined.”
The case now moves back to the appeals court. Appellate judges could decide the constitutionality question or send the matter back to the trial court.
Caps upheld, overturned elsewhere
Mississippi is the latest state to address caps on damages. In July, the Supreme Court of Missouri struck down the state’s $350,000 noneconomic damages cap on medical lawsuits, ruling the limit unconstitutional.
Other caps have been upheld by courts. In March, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reaffirmed the state’s $500,000 limit on total medical liability damages. Legal challenges are pending in Indiana and Kansas.
In Mississippi, the court’s basis for declining to decide the cap’s constitutionality is understandable, but the opinion is still disappointing, said R. Kevin Hamilton, an attorney for Learmonth.
“Since the Mississippi Supreme Court was asked by the federal court to answer a question here, as opposed to decide a case, I had hoped that they would ultimately render a decision about the constitutionality of the damages caps,” he said. “It is a highly unusual scenario for the court to hear arguments related to the certified question and have the case for a substantial period of time without ultimately answering the certified question.”
For doctors and other health care professionals, it was important that the court decide the caps’ fate, said Rob Jones, legal counsel for Medical Assurance Co. of Mississippi. The company was not involved in the case but supports the cap.
“We have no opinions on the issue yet, and we’ve been looking for [a] decision for a while now,” he said. “The Supreme Court had the opportunity to address a very significant issue in Mississippi, probably the most significant civil liability issue in Mississippi. [But the court] elected to focus on a technical problem instead of focus on the constitutional issue.”
Physicians anticipate that the caps’ constitutionality probably will be reheard after new justices for the state’s high court are elected this year, said Anna Morris, director of external relations for the Mississippi State Medical Assn.
“Before tort reform passed a decade ago, our state was labeled a judicial hellhole due to rampant lawsuit abuse,” she said. “Physicians were leaving the state because they could no longer afford to practice. For the sake of health care and business, it is the hope of Mississippi physicians that the Supreme Court will support the constitutionality of caps.”