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Media Alerts - Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck and Co. - Fifth Circuit
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February 28, 2013
  Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck and Co. - Fifth Circuit
Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck and Co. - Fifth Circuit

Headline: Fifth Circuit Finds Mississippi's Statutory Cap on Noneconomic Damages Does Not Violate the Mississippi Constitution.

Area of Law: tort reform, personal injury, state constitutional law

Issue Presented: Whether Mississippi's statutory limitation of $1 million for noneconomic damages violates the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions.

Brief Summary: A jury returned a general verdict of $4 million in compensatory damages for Lisa Learmonth against Sears, Roebuck and Co. in an automobile accident lawsuit. Sears filed a motion for either a remittitur - a reduction of the award - or a new trial on the basis that the award was excessive. Sears also requested that Mississippi Code § 11-1-60 be applied, which would limit Learmonth's noneconomic damages (damages arising from a variety of injuries such as "pain, suffering, loss of consortium and injury to reputation") to $1 million. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi determined that $2.2 million of the jury verdict was for noneconomic damages, and it reduced this amount to $1 million under § 11-1-60, although it denied Sears's motion for remittitur or new trial.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed. In doing so, the court rejected Learmonth's argument that § 11-1-60 violates the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions.

Significance: Mississippi's cap on noneconomic damages is not unconstitutional under the Mississippi Constitution. The Mississippi Supreme Court had not previously ruled upon the question.

Extended Summary: Lisa Learmonth sued Sears, Roebuck and Co. for damages arising from an automobile accident. A jury returned a general verdict of $4 million in compensatory damages against Sears, but the verdict did not specify separate amounts for economic damages - such as past and future medical expenses and lost wage-earning capacity - and noneconomic damages - such as "subjective, nonpecuniary damages arising from death, pain, suffering, . . . mental anguish" and other losses. Sears filed a motion for either remittitur - a reduction of the award - or a new trial on the basis that the jury award was excessive. Sears also requested that Mississippi Code § 11-1-60 be applied, which would limit Learmonth's noneconomic damages to $1 million. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi divided up the $4 million verdict and estimated that $2.2 million of the jury verdict arose from noneconomic damages. This number was obtained from Sears's motion, and Learmonth used the same number in her arguments opposing remittitur or a new trial. The district court then reduced the $2.2 million amount to $1 million under § 11-1-60 and entered a judgment, although it denied Sears's motion for remittitur or new trial.

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Sears argued that the award was excessive, and Learmonth cross-appealed, arguing that § 11-1-60 violates the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions. The Fifth Circuit rejected Sears's argument and certified the constitutional question to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which declined to answer the question. The Mississippi Supreme Court stated that the stipulated $2.2 million in noneconomic damages was an invalid estimation because "it could not determine whether the 'trier of fact' had awarded Learmonth more than $1 million." Since this issue was left unclear, the state court declined to answer the constitutional question. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit was left to determine the constitutional question for itself.

The Fifth Circuit addressed some of Learmonth's arguments that were made for the first time after the Mississippi Supreme Court decision, including (1) that a trial court is prohibited from applying § 11-1-60 unless the jury stated the exact amount of the noneconomic damages in the verdict, and (2) that § 11-1-60 violates the Mississippi Constitution's due process and remedy clause. The Fifth Circuit held that these arguments were waived because Learmonth had not properly raised and renewed them on appeal.

The Fifth Circuit did address Learmonth's argument that § 11-1-60 violates the jury trial guarantee in the Mississippi Constitution in that there is a right to (1) "have a jury alone find the proper compensatory damage amount" and (2) "have that factual finding converted, undisturbed, into a legally binding judgment of equal value." In considering these issues, the court explained the difference between a jury's verdict, which is a finding of fact and conclusion of law, and a court's judgment, which is "the pronouncement of that [verdict] and the act that gives it legal effect." The court determined that § 11-1-60 does not change a jury's factual damages determination in its verdict, but merely places a "legal limitation on the judgment that provides the remedy for a noneconomic injury," which the legislature is entitled to do under Mississippi law. Further, the court found that § 11-1-60 "does not invade the jury's factfinding process," and thus does not violate the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee.

Learmonth also argued that the statute violates the Mississippi Constitution's separation of powers provisions because it directly conflicts with remittitur, which is a judicial procedure. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument because remittitur applies when a district court questions the jury's factual findings, but § 11-1-60 does not alter the jury's factual findings at all; rather, it is only "a non-discretionary limit on the permissibly legal remedy," which is the court's final judgment. The Fifth Circuit also held that the legislature has the authority to enact non-procedural laws that may affect a judicial function without upsetting the separation of powers, such as when the legislature defines a cause of action that "alters the elements a [fact finder] must consider to find liability."

Because the Fifth Circuit found that § 11-1-60 does not violate the Mississippi Constitution's jury trial guarantee or separation of powers provisions, the court affirmed the District Court's judgment.

For the full opinion, please see: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/op...9/09-60651-CV0.wpd.pdf.

Panel: Chief Judge Stewart and Circuit Judges King and Owen

Argument Date: 12/07/2010

Date of Issued Opinion: 2/27/2013

Docket Number: No. 09-60651

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Julie Goodrich

Counsel: Robert Kevin Hamilton, Hamilton Law Firm, P.L.L.C., for Plaintiff-Appellee Cross-Appellant Lisa Learmonth, and Francis A. Citera, Greenberg Traurig, L.L.P., for Defendant-Appellant Cross-Appellee Sears, Roebuck & Company.

Author of Opinion: Judge King

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl

    Posted By: Aaron Bruhl @ 02/28/2013 11:20 AM     5th Circuit  

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