Appeals panel upholds ruling in tort case

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi's $1 million cap on noneconomic damages for such things as pain and suffering was upheld Wednesday, bringing an end to a woman's legal efforts to collect the full damages awarded by a jury after a traffic wreck.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a challenge brought by Lisa Learmonth, who had claimed the cap is unconstitutional.

Learmonth sued Sears and Roebuck Co. in 2006 after she was involved in a collision with one of the company's vans near Philadelphia, Miss.

A federal jury in Mississippi in 2008 found Sears was liable for Learmonth's injuries and awarded $4 million in damages but jurors did not itemize how much of the award was for noneconomic damages.

Learmonth and Sears agreed $2.2 million of the verdict was for noneconomic damages. A federal judge reduced that part of the damages to $1 million, in line with Mississippi law.

The three-judge appeals panel ruled Wednesday that the trial judge acted properly.

Frank Citera, of Chicago, the attorney for Sears, said the company was happy with the results.

"We think it was the right decision. The court resolved the questions of whether it violated the right to a jury trial and separation of powers and agreed with us it did not," Citera said.

Kevin Hamilton, of Ridgeland, the attorney for Learmonth, said the court is saying with the ruling that "the constitutional right to a jury trial only means a party has the right to have a jury hear his case, but not a constitutional right to the jury's determinations — even if they're based on the evidence presented."

"That is akin to saying that a person has the constitutional right to bear arms but not ammunition. One, without the other, makes for a meaningless and hollow constitutional right," Hamilton said.

Hamilton also said that Mississippi state court judges are not bound by the ruling.

"The Mississippi Supreme Court will have the ultimate say-so over whether the cap on what a person can recover when they've suffered a life-long and debilitating injury is constitutional or not. And there are a number of cases in the appeals process that will give the Mississippi Supreme Court an opportunity to right this wrong," he said.

The $1 million cap on noneconomic damages applies to what a jury can award someone for such things as pain and suffering. The limits on damages were adopted by Mississippi lawmakers after years of contentious wrangling over tort changes.

Noneconomic damages under Mississippi law do not include punitive damages.

There is no cap on damages for economic losses, such as how much the person could have expected to earn in his or her lifetime or for such things as continuing medical expenses.

The initial limits on lawsuit awards came in 2002. The law was amended in 2004 amid complaints that the initial changes didn't go far enough.

After the judge reduced Learmonth's award she appealed, saying the judge usurped the jury's exclusive sphere. Sears, meanwhile, said the cap was fair and simply altered the permissible legal effect of a jury's award.

The three-judge panel, in a ruling written by Judge Carolyn Dineen King, said Mississippi law "can be interpreted not to alter a jury's factual damages determination, but instead to impose a strictly legal limitation on the judgment that provides the remedy for a noneconomic injury."

King also rejected Learmonth's argument that the Legislature, by imposing caps, violated the separation of powers.

"The statute's command that a judge 'shall' limit a noneconomic damages judgment is tantamount to a command that a judge shall apply substantive law. This legislative tautology does not represent an impermissible intrusion on any judicial function," King said.

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