On Aug. 23, the Mississippi Supreme Court declined to answer whether the state law that places a $1 million cap on non-economic damages in civil cases is constitutional.
Currently considering the appeal of a damage award against Sears Roebuck & Co., the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans asked the Mississippi high court for the opinion prior to taking up the appeal. A federal jury in 2008 determined Sears was liable for an injured motorist’s injuries, awarding $4 million in damages, but the jury did not itemize how much of the award was non-economic damages.
In an eight-to-one ruling, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Michael Randolph noted that the federal jury did not itemize the damage award, and the justices, he wrote, could not separate economic damages from non-economic damages, which are capped under Mississippi law.
The plaintiff and Sears agreed $2.2 million of the verdict was for non-economic damages. A federal judge reduced that portion of the damages to $1 million.
Upon hearing the damages appeal, the Fifth Circuit Chief Judge Edith Jones sent the case to the Mississippi Supreme Court because the non-economic damage cap is “an important question of state law, determinative of the noneconomic damages issue in this case, for which there is no controlling precedent from the Supreme Court of Mississippi.”
In the majority’s opinion, Randolph wrote that “to answer a certified question which, if the case were directly appealed to this court, would not be reached under the facts presented.
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.’”
According to Randolph’s majority opinion, the justices could not look into the minds of the federal jurors, but that the question could have been addressed if the federal trial judge had required the jury to break out the amount of non-economic damages from the total award.
Mississippi has had a non-economic damage cap since 2002, but has not been tested in front of the state’s high court.