Case Study / Appellate disposition of a trucking accident case raises this question: Where federal court certifies question of state law to supreme court of the state whose law it is applying under Erie v. Tompkins in a diversity action, if such state supreme court opines that the law of its state compels it to decline giving an answer, may the federal court nevertheless arrive at its own answer thereafter?

Learmouth v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., — F.3d —, No. 09-60651, 2013 WL 708170 (5th Circuit, February 27, 2013).

Free copy of opinion available here. 

Mississippi jury awarded plaintiff $4 million in general verdict – and the jury had not instructed to separate its verdict to differentiate between “economic” damages and “non-economic”.   

Mississippi has a statute that caps “non-economic” damages at $1 million. Based on this statute the federal district court remitted $2,218,905 of the stipulated non-economic damages portion of the verdict to $1,000,000 – and entered an order for judgment totaling $2,781,094. 

On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit defendant truck operator (Sears) appealed the jury’s verdict, and plaintiff appealed the “non-economic” damages statute (i.e., the one limiting such to a cap of $1,000,000) under provisions of the Mississippi Constitution.  

The 5th Circuit upheld the verdict, and on the validity of the $1,000,000 damages cap under the Mississippi Constitution certified those constitutional questions to the Mississippi Supreme Court. 

The Mississippi Supreme Court declined to answer the certified question on the ground that to do so would be “speculation” or “conjecture”. All it knew of the verdict, so the Mississippi Supreme Court reasoned, was that it was a “general” verdict undifferentiated at a lump sum of $4 million. It’s sole basis for quantifying such a would-be verdict for “non-economic” damages would be guesswork, therefore, it would, “decline to answer a certified constitutional question outside the clear context of its application”.  

Upon receiving this response from the Mississippi Supreme Court, the 5th Circuit asked the parties to brief it and then ruled on the Mississippi Constitution question on which the Mississippi Supreme Court had declined to rule. It upheld the (Mississippi) constitutionality of the damages cap and affirmed the judgment of the federal district court. 

Brad Clanton, Esq. of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., in “Circuit Notes: Fifth Circuit” as edited by Emma J. Hinnegan, Esq. of Liskow & Lewis, offers a compelling summary of the significance of this case in the “Appellate Practice” Committee of the American Bar Association Section of Litigation – concluding

“In Learmonth, the Mississippi Supreme Court declined to answer the certified questions, so the Fifth Circuit answered those questions itself. However, in the course of explaining its refusal to directly answer the certified questions, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated that Mississippi law would not allow it to answer the certified questions even if they had come before it on direct appeal due to the “speculation” necessary to answer the constitutional questions. Should the Fifth Circuit have deferred to the Mississippi Supreme Court’s answer on that question of Mississippi law? Are there any binding requirements placed on federal courts regarding deference, or lack thereof, to answers to questions certified to a state appellate court, or the declination by the state court to answer the questions based on the law of that state that also governs in federal diversity matters? Is the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution implicated in these instances? Are there other limitations placed on the certifying court in these instances?”