Good News, Bad News from Mississippi Courts
First the good news. Last week a jury ruled in favor of Union Carbide, the defendant in an asbestos lawsuit that previously resulted in a $322 million verdict, the largest asbestos award for a single plaintiff in U.S. history. This new defense verdict comes after the Mississippi Supreme Court remanded the lawsuit back to the trial court after removing the Smith County judge who originally heard the case. That judge had failed to disclose that his parents were involved in similar asbestos litigation, and this conflict of interest, the defense argued, could have influenced some of his outlandish rulings throughout the case. Once a new trial judge was installed by the high court, he threw out the original record-breaking verdict and ordered a new trial. The case was then moved to Jones County where jurors came back just last week with a fair verdict for the defense.
Now the bad news. On April 20, 2012, Coahoma County Circuit Judge Charles Webster ruled that a 2004 reform law limiting awards for noneconomic damages to $1 million was unconstitutional. The same issue is currently pending in the state’s supreme court, and if it ultimately agrees with Judge Webster, Mississippi will join a minority of states that have imprudently struck down such laws.
Reasonable limits on inherently subjective awards for so-called “pain and suffering” provide much needed guidance to juries that might otherwise be susceptible to the heart-string pluckings of silver-tongued trial lawyers such as John Edwards and Dickie Scruggs, hoping to get rich beyond their wildest contingency-fee dreams. By reducing the likelihood of runaway verdicts, limits on noneconomic damages lessen defendants’ fear of going to trial and thus lessen the motivation for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue meritless lawsuits in the first place.