Mississippi 2004 Tort Reform Legislation

Summary of Mississippi 2004 Legislation
On June 16, 2004, Mississippi Governor Barbour signed into law HB 13, the 2004 Tort Reform Act. This legislation significantly changes the legal rules governing civil litigation in the state, and addresses what reform advocates maintain to be contributing factors to Mississippi’s notoriously large jury awards. The legislation, an addendum to the 2002 tort reform bill, is considered to be the most comprehensive tort reform package Mississippi has seen to date. The bill affects civil actions filed on or after September 1, 2004.

The 2004 Tort Reform package introduces innovative measures to curb mass tort suits, frivolous lawsuits and excessive jury awards. The bill amends existing sections and adds new sections to the Mississippi Code of 1972.  Among the more progressive elements of the bill are those regarding venue selection, caps on awarding noneconomic damages and punitive damages, joint liability, additional liability protection to “Innocent Sellers”, product liability, premise liability, and allocation of fault. The bill also addresses waiver of medical privileges, patient rights, jury service and speedy bench trials

Venues
Section 1 of HB 13 amends Section 11-11-3, MS Code of 1972, by imposing stricter limits for establishing venue. Mississippi’s contested option to establish venue in a civil action against a nonresident defendant at the discretion of the plaintiff, notwithstanding location of plaintiff’s residence or domicile, or cause of action, has been a point of controversy. Advocates for stricter limits point to the ability of plaintiffs to establish venue in any county as a legal strategy known as forum shopping. This section of the bill also attempts to reduce mass tort by requiring multiple plaintiffs to establish venues independently.

The act specifically addresses healthcare-related civil actions, stating, “any action against a licensed physician, osteopath, dentist, nurse, nurse-practioner, physician assistant, psychologist, pharmacist, podiatrist, optometrist, chiropractor, institution for the aged or infirm, hospital or licensed pharmacy … for malpractice, negligence, error, omission, mistake, breech of standard of care or the unauthorized rendering of professional services shall be brought only in the county in which the alleged act or omission occurred.” Additionally, cases against a manufacturer are limited to the county where the principal place of business of the manufacturer is located, where a substantial act, omission or event that caused the injury occurred, or the plaintiff obtained the product. The act does not disallow for transfer of cases to more convenient venues provided set factors are considered, nor does the act abolish the plaintiff’s right to pursue cases transferred to another state.

Caps on Noneconomic Damages
Section 2 of HB 13 amends Section 11-1-60, Mississippi Code of 1972, by introducing a cap on noneconomic damages in plaintiff awards. The act reinstates the existing $500,000 cap in medical liability cases and introduces a $1 million limit in all other civil cases.

The amendment also creates a system based on pure allocation of fault for civil cases, rather than dividing the cost of noneconomic damages through a system of joint and several liability. Section 6 of HB 13 addresses this issue by amending Section 85-5-7, Mississippi Code of 1972. “Fault allocated under this subsection to an immune tort-feasor or a tort-feasor whose liability is limited by law shall not be reallocated to any other tort-feasors.” This amendment is intended to curb mass tort liability, wherein another defendant is not responsible for damages beyond their fraction of fault.

Product Liability
Section 3 of HB 13 amends Section 11-1-63 by adding additional liability protection to “Innocent Sellers” of product(s) in suit. While the amendment fails to provide definition for the term “constructive knowledge,” the act does attempt to protect sellers from liability. HB 13 specifically states, “It is the intent of this section [3-h] to immunize innocent sellers who are not negligent, but instead are mere conduits of a product.” Additionally, the section of 11-1-64 that states, “the procedure for dismissing a defendant whose liability is based solely on his status as a seller …” is repealed.

Punitive Damages
Section 4 amends 11-1-65 by further reducing caps on punitive damages for defendants with a net worth of $500 million or less. These limits, which are based on the net worth of defendants, must be based on punitive damages alone, not the defendant’s ability to pay. The act is intended to reduce frivolous or excessive law suits.

Premise Liability
Section 5 of HB 13 amends Section 11-1-66, adding that no owner, occupant, lessee or managing agent of property is liable for the death or injury of an independent contractor or their employees “resulting from dangers which the contractor knew or reasonably should have known.”.

Jury Service, Speedy Bench Trial, Med Disciplinary ProceedingsOther Amendments
Other noteworthy changes to the law include stricter instruction pertaining to jury service on the part of the juror and the state, as well as a “speedy trial” alternative to bench trials, which will receive priority on the trial court’s docket. Further, the Amendment introduces a requirement of notice to patients, and their subsequent right to participate in disciplinary hearings that their physicians are the subject of (Miss. Code Ann. Section 73-25-27).

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