Attorneys for Ronnie Lymas go to the Mississippi Supreme Court on June 8 hoping to resurrect a $4.1 million jury verdict vehemently opposed by dozens of trade associations and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour.
Critics say Lymas is not legally entitled to that much money.
A Humphreys County jury decided Lymas should be compensated for getting shot eight times in the back in 2007 during an altercation at a gas station/convenience store in Belzoni. The jury found the owners of Double Quick liable for Lymas' injuries. Lymas sued Double Quick, claiming the company didn't do enough to ensure the safety of its customers.
The jury awarded actual damages to cover things like medical costs, plus non-economic damages with the total coming to about $4.1 million. The judge in the case, however, lowered the non-economic damages to $1 million, which is the cap put into law by the Mississippi Legislature in 2003.
Lymas' attorneys are challenging the judge's decision and the constitutionality of the cap.
Joe Tatum of Jackson, who represents Lymas, has declined to comment on the case.
Since the 2008 decisions by the jury and the judge, groups from the Mississippi Farm Bureau to the Mississippi Propane Gas Association to the Mississippi Poultry Association have lined up against Lymas.
The case is seen not only as a significant test of civil justice changes enacted in 2003 — hailed by business leaders and despised by plaintiffs' attorneys — but also as a showdown over so-called premises liability issues.
Barbour champions tort reform and has said a ruling that overrides the tighter liability laws would be devastating for the state. He has asked the Supreme Court to uphold "the constitutionality of Mississippi's non-economic damage caps."
The non-economic caps — also called punitive damages — put a limit on what juries can award someone for such things as pain and suffering.
Bob Montgomery, a Canton attorney representing some of the trade associations, said the case marks the first time a challenge to the tort reform laws has reached the Supreme Court.
"That's a significant issue to the business and professional community, and they wanted to have that expressed to the Supreme Court," said Montgomery, a former state senator.
Lymas has his own supporters such as the Magnolia Bar Association, a lawyers' group that in its brief said the Legislature's non-economic damage limit violated the Constitution's separation of powers by stepping into judiciary matters.
"Capping damages ... eviscerates trial by jury as it was understood when the constitutions of Mississippi and the United States were first adopted," the group argues.
Ron Aldridge, Mississippi state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said while the cap issue is an important one, many business groups have also weighed in on the issue of premises liability and whether businesses should pay for injuries to customers.
"Many of our mom-and-pop operations are struggling right now to pay the rent and keep people employed," Aldridge said. "If our law on premises liability were expanded to require them to provide their security, many would find it impossible to keep their doors open."
Aldridge said the economy had forced many small businesses to make difficult choices. He said the prospect of higher liability insurance if the damages cap is gone and a need to hire security to protect customers would be too much for some of them to afford.
Barbour said a repeal of the non-economic damages cap would have "horrendous consequences" in Mississippi.
"Insurance premiums for Mississippi businesses and health care providers would dramatically increase due to the added uncertainty of exposure to outrageous awards," the governor said.
The limits on damages were adopted after years of contentious wrangling over tort reform.
Doctors, businesses and medical groups had argued that the legal climate in Mississippi was untenable because of excessive awards. Plaintiffs attorneys and others claimed caps on damages further victimized people who had been wronged by negligence and denied them the compensation they deserved.