Fifth Circuit Affirms the Constitutionality of Mississippi's Noneconomic Damages Cap

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On February 27, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed that Mississippi’s $1 million statutory cap on noneconomic damages is a lawful exercise of legislative power under Mississippi’s Constitution. This is the first time that an appellate court, state or federal, has reached the merits of a constitutional challenge to Mississippi’s noneconomic damages cap.

In Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., No. 09-60651, the jury awarded the plaintiff $4 million in compensatory damages for injuries that she suffered in an automobile accident; the award included $2.2 million in noneconomic damages. (Noneconomic damages include any “subjective, non-pecuniary damages” arising from death, pain, suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and the like. Miss. Code § 11-1-60.) The district court applied Mississippi’s statutory cap, and reduced the noneconomic damages award to $1 million. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the cap violated the Mississippi Constitution’s jury trial guarantee and separation of powers clauses. Such arguments have been successfully invoked to invalidate damages caps in other states. The Fifth Circuit initially certified the constitutional question to the Mississippi Supreme Court, but the supreme court declined to answer the question on procedural grounds. Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Learmonth, 95 So.3d 633, 637-38 (Miss. 2012).

Upon return of the unanswered certified question, the Fifth Circuit rejected both of the plaintiff’s constitutional challenges to Mississippi’s cap. First, the cap did not impermissibly alter a jury’s factual determination on damages; it merely imposed a legal limitation on the court’s judgment, which provides the actual remedy to the injured party. Moreover, because a litigant does not have a constitutional right to a dollar-for-dollar translation of the jury verdict into a binding judgment, the legislature may limit the legal remedy for the injury-in-fact found by the jury. Second, the Fifth Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s separation-of-powers challenge, holding that the damages cap was not an unlawful legislative intrusion into a core power of the Mississippi judiciary. To the contrary, the cap represented a permissible alteration of state substantive law, not an impermissible interference with court procedure.

In a closing paragraph, the Fifth Circuit acknowledged that, at some point, a statutory damages cap – one that limited noneconomic damages to $1.00, for example – may violate the Mississippi Constitution’s due process clause or remedy clause. The Learmonth plaintiff, however, had waived any arguments under those clauses by failing to present them on appeal. These lines of constitutional attack remain open to future plaintiffs.

After the Fifth Circuit’s Learmonth decision, defendants in Mississippi’s federal courts can count on the enforceability of Mississippi’s $1 million cap on noneconomic damages. Given the thoroughness of the opinion, state court defendants now have persuasive authority for enforcing the cap as well. In the end, though, Learmonth is an Erie guess by the federal court as to the proper application of the Mississippi Constitution; the decision does not bind Mississippi state courts and the Mississippi Supreme Court is free to depart from it in a future case.