PERRY/Jones on judicial 'hell' watch
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 12:00 AM
The American Tort Reform Association's (ATRA) latest "Judicial Hellholes" report puts Jones County, Mississippi on the "Watch List" and lists the U.S. Fifth Circuit's upholding of Mississippi's limits on noneconomic damages as a "Point of Light." The annual report documents "places where judges in civil cases systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, generally against defendants." (The report only deals with civil litigation, not on criminal justice.)
Before Mississippi's 2002 and 2004 tort reforms, Mississippi was often described by civil litigation reform advocates as a "Judicial Hellhole" or a place to seek "Jackpot Justice." But in recent years, Mississippi has only made the ATRA report's "Watch List" (previous counties: Jefferson, Hinds, Holmes, Smith) or been noted in respect to the judicial corruption cases involving Paul Minor and Dickie Scruggs, or the "dangerous liaisons" between Attorney General Jim Hood and his no-bid contingency fee plaintiff attorneys. ATRA's 2005 and 2006 reports note, "Mississippi has been transformed from the 'jackpot justice capital of America' to America's number one reformer."
Mississippi's notoriety in this year's report comes courtesy of Circuit Court Judge Billy Joe Landrum. The report notes, "Jones County, located in southeaster Mississippi, is proud of its manufacturing, service, and oil industries. But its litigation industry, and the fairness of its circuit court, is of considerable concern to American business."
According to the report, following a 2005 case in which thousands of silica lawsuits "were exposed by a federal judge in Texas as fraudulent... the silica litigation surge subsided. But an exception is Jones County, where new, flimsy silica cases reportedly still find a welcoming home."
It continues, "To their credit, Jones County jurors have shown openness to rejecting such suits. For example, in April 2013 jurors reached a defense verdict, finding that while a plaintiff, Richard Pierce, was exposed to silica sand, the defendants' products were not defective in their warnings or design. On cue, Judge Billy Joe Landrum, the principal source of anxiety for the silica defendants that find themselves being dragged into Jones County, threw out the verdict and granted the plaintiffs a do-over. Judge Landrum's June 2013 order granting a retrial found that, in his view, a reasonable jury could not have possibly found for the defendants without ignoring the overwhelming amount of evidence presented at trial."
The report also cited another case presided over by Judge Landrum: "Ford reportedly felt it was treated unfairly in a 2010 rollover case that resulted in a $132.5 million compensatory damage verdict. The plaintiff, a promising baseball player, was driving over 80 miles per hour without a seatbelt when he drifted off the road. The plaintiffs' lawyer touted the Jones County result as 'the largest award ever against Ford in a lawsuit involving a Ford Explorer or Ford Expedition .' Not surprisingly, Ford opted to settle before the punitive damages phase of the trial began. And unless appellate courts or Magnolia State lawmakers in Jackson crack down on Jones County shenanigans, the carmaker will not likely be the last out-state-corporation to do so."
While the report doesn't mention the aftermath, Jackson attorney Philip Thomas of the MS Litigation Review blog, writes that the Ford verdict spurred an additional lawsuit over attorney fees between Jackson lawyer Wayne Ferrell, Jr. and Arkansas lawyer C. Tab Turner. Thomas wrote in 2010, "This has the potential to be the biggest lawyer fee dispute case since the 1999 Dockins v. Allred decision...I suspect that the [Ford] settlement deeply discounted the jury's verdict. But even a 90% discount would leave the attorneys fighting over millions of dollars in fees. Lawsuits against and among lawyers are often knife fights. I doubt that this one will be any different."
The report calls the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upholding Mississippi's limit on noneconomic damages a "Point of Light."
The report notes, "By an overwhelming majority, Mississippi lawmakers enacted a $1 million limit on subjective awards for pain and suffering in 2004. The limit was among several reforms that helped Mississippi jurisdictions climb out of the ranks of Judicial Hellholes. The Fifth Circuit found that Mississippi's limit on noneconomic damages did not violate the state constitution's jury-trial guarantee and separation of powers provisions. State law places no restriction on the amount that a plaintiff can recover for economic losses, such as medical expenses or lost income. The Fifth Circuit found that litigants' right to a jury trial does not negate legislators' authority to define available legal remedies. It also found that the noneconomic damages limit did not interfere with judges' power to reduce excessive verdicts nor impermissibly constitute a legislatively promulgated procedural rule."
According to the report, "Observers are closely watching how a state appellate court will rule on a pending challenge to the state's$500,000 limit on noneconomic damages in medical negligence actions."
Brian Perry is a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC and a columnist for the Madison County Journal. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.