In Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 09-60651, 2013 WL 708170 (5th Cir. Feb. 27, 2013), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the constitutionality of Mississippi’s $1 million statutory cap on non-economic damages, holding that the cap does not violate Mississippi’s jury trial guarantee or separation of powers clause.
Learmonth challenged the statutory cap after the trial judge reduced the non-economic damages component of her $4 million jury award to the statutory limit of $1 million. The Court held that the statutory limit does not invade the jury’s fact-finding role because the judge applies the cap only after the jury’s verdict and because the jury is not informed of the cap beforehand. The Court also held that the right to a jury does not include the right to a judgment equal to the jury’s damages finding. Rejecting the separation of powers challenge, the Court held that the damages cap defines only substantive legal rights and did not intrude into the mode of proceedings by which a legal right is enforced. Finally, the Court noted that although Mississippi’s Due Process Clause might constrain the legislature’s authority to cap compensatory damages in some circumstances, Learmonth had waived any such challenge.
Although this federal decision is not binding on Mississippi state courts, it is influential. The reasoning of the decision also has general applicability for constitutional challenges to similar state statutory damages caps around the country, an issue that has divided state high courts.