A federal case in the state of Washington almost made headlines in Mississippi. What began as a medical malpractice case filed under the Tort Claims Act eventually became a major threat to a Mississippi statute providing for non-economic damage caps in medical malpractice cases. The challenge threatened to lead to the statute being held unconstitutional by a Washington state federal court, an almost certain appeal of such a finding to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and a possible certification of the question to the Mississippi Supreme Court. After some sabre rattling by both sides, this constitutional challenge to one of Mississippi’s tort reform statutes quietly came to an end.
Bridgette Jeffries, as Guardian for Melvin Eason, An Incapacitated Person v. United States of America began as a Tort Claims Act medical malpractice case. Melvin Eason was treated at the Sonny Montgomery V.A. Medic al Center in Jackson, Mississippi. Mr. Eason suffered a massive stroke during his treatment and he left the hospital in a near vegetative state. His daughter, Bridgette Jeffries, brought him home to Washington state, where he now resides, and filed the medical malpractice case on his behalf. Following a trial on the merits, U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik found in favor of Jeffries and ruled that Mr. Eason suffered damages in the sum of $4,308,892.
Judge Lasnik also found that the total damages included $1,000,000 in non-economic damages and that the non-economic damages reward would be reduced to $500,000 in accordance with Mississippi’s cap on medical malpractice non-economic damages contained in Section 11-1-60(2)(a) Miss. Code Ann. (1972, as amended). A final judgment was entered in favor of Mr. Eason in the amount of $3,808, 892.
Jeffries filed a Motion to Amend Judgment to reflect the full amount of her father’s non-economic damages. Her motion argued that the provisions of Mississippi’s non-economic damage cap violated her father’s state and federal constitutional rights. Among other things, she claimed that the statute violated Article IV, Section 87 of the Mississippi Constitution prohibiting the Mississippi legislature from suspending any general law for the benefit of any individual or private corporation or association. In Jeffrie’s view, Mississippi’s general law regarding adjusting jury verdicts, Section 11-1-55 Mississippi Code Ann. (1972, as amended) applies to all judgments for the purpose of insuring the reasonableness of the judgment. In her opinion, the Mississippi Constitution prohibited the application of the damage cap because the cap exempted medical providers from the provisions of Section 11-1-55 in violation of Article IV, Section 87 of the Mississippi Constitution .
The Jeffries motion raised the possibility that the constitutionality of one of Mississippi’s key tort reform statutes would be decided by a federal court in a state that has long held that caps on non-economic damages are unconstitutional. See Sofie v. Fibreboard Corp., 771 P.2d 711 (Wash. 1989). The Mississippi Attorney General filed a Motion to File an Amicus Brief in the case and a related brief in support of the motion. The Mississippi Medical Association, Mississippi Hospital Association, Mississippi Nurses Association, Mississippi Dental Association and the Mississippi Health Care Association also filed a joint Motion to File an Amicus Brief in the case and a related brief in support of the motion.
On February 1, 2010, Jeffries withdrew her Motion to Amend. According to Ralph Brindley, attorney for Jeffries, the prospect of lengthy appeals of the constitutional issue was too much for his client to handle and his client hopes to resolve the matter in time for Mr. Eason to have some meaningful use of any recovery during his lifetime.
The issues raised in the Jeffries case are likely to resurface. Odds are that the next challenge will arise in a Mississippi courtroom. Stay tuned…..