Mississippi Senate bill 2901 seeks to limit premises liability for property owners. The measure has passed the state Senate. A similar bill failed in the House of Representatives.
The bill is a form of tort reform. It raises the threshold of property owner liability when a third party causes harm to someone on the property. A good example of third party harm would be if someone is injured by a thug in a parking lot. The legislation establishes liability only if the property owner “with a degree of conscious decision-making, impelled the conduct of said third party.” The legislation also limits the liability of the property owner to their percentage of the fault in the incident. The legislation creates a new standard for an “atmosphere of violence,” requiring a felony conviction on the property within the last three years. The net result would give property owners a much higher degree of protection, virtual immunity, from liability if violence occurs on their property.
Proponents of the bill argue the new law will spur economic development in Jackson, where business owners are afraid to invest because juries have been plaintiff friendly. Indeed, Jackson has produced several big judgments against property owners. Many have been overturned on appeal, but the effect surely makes investors wary of Jackson and other tort-friendly areas of our state.
The real issue is who should be making these liability calls: the legislature or the courts. Most tort laws in general and premises liability specifically come from common law – meaning the accumulated guidance of centuries of decisions by judges and juries. Is it wise for legislators to supplant the decision making of judges and juries, especially when each case is unique? In 2004, the legislature intervened and put monetary limits on punitive and non-economic tort damages, but this new proposal strikes at the heart of liability assessment, which is fundamentally a judgment call. The existing standard is “negligence.”
Economic development of Jackson is crucial to the long-term growth of Mississippi, but lawmakers should be cautious of the unintended consequences of meddling with centuries of premises liability common law.