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Jones County, Mississippi

Jones County, located in southeastern 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 businesses.

For example, silica lawsuits have dried up around the country but are experiencing a resurgence in Jones County. Back in 2005, thousands of silica lawsuits, which alleged that exposure to silica dust in the workplace resulted in lung damage known as silicosis, were exposed by a federal judge in Texas as fraudulent. U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack found that the number of silicosis cases had exploded in Mississippi, rising from just 40 and 76 claims in 2000 and 2001 respectively, to 10,642 in 2002. Between 2002 and 2004, the 20,479 new silicosis claims filed in Mississippi, Judge Jack found, were more than five times greater than the total number of silicosis cases one would expect over the same period across the entire United States. Her 249-page opinion concluded that “these diagnoses were driven by neither health nor justice: they were manufactured for money” by conspiring lawyers, doctors, and screening companies.

Following that ruling, the silica litigation surge subsided. But an exception is Jones County, where new, flimsy silica cases reportedly still find a welcoming home. In fact, one of the doctors who previously supported Judge Jack’s findings, pulmonologist Steven Haber of Houston, now works for the Mississippi personal injury lawyers who bring the lawsuits, billing $450 an hour for depositions and $5,000 a day for trials. Nice work if you can get it.

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 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.

Going forward with a trial before Judge Landrum is a risky proposition. Some silica cases have resulted in million dollar verdicts. Other types of product liability cases also come before the court. 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.

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