[Dickerson] How Much Justice Can You Afford?

Have you ever purchased an insurance policy, confident that your check (and the insurance agent's pledge that "you're now covered") would be enough to protect you?

Have you ever taken time off from work to serve on a jury, confident that your service would be respected by the courts?

If so, you were wrong on both counts.

On Oct. 2, the Mississippi Supreme Court irreparably harmed both legal concepts. In Stewart v. Prudential, the Supreme Court overturned, in a 7-2 decision, a 2006 Hinds County Circuit Court jury award of $36.4 million against Prudential Insurance—a decision that will negatively affect every Mississippian who has ever purchased an insurance policy or served on a jury.

In a dissenting opinion, Justices James Graves and Oliver Diaz said that the case had been decided properly by the jury that heard the case.

The case involved Dr. Edsel Stewart, a McComb ob-gyn, who purchased a $1 million life insurance policy from Prudential and wrote out a check for $20,000 to put the policy in effect. Sadly, Stewart had a stroke the following day and died about a month later.

When his family attempted to collect on the insurance, Prudential refused to honor the policy. It was Prudential's position that the policy was never officially approved, even though the company had reviewed Stewart's medical history, provided him with an annual fee quote and accepted his check.

A Hinds County jury listened to both sides and ruled in the Stewarts' favor, adding more than $35 million in punitive damages. Juries make large awards like that in situations in which they feel a defendant in a civil proceeding has behaved badly. It is the only legal means that ordinary citizens have to punish corporate lawbreakers.

Alex A. Alston Jr., the Stewart family attorney, was "shocked" by the ruling. Alston, who has a national reputation as a First Amendment attorney, asked, "Do they want to do away with the jury system?"

In Mississippi, juries traditionally determine the facts of a case. Appellate courts have overturned juries in instances when the judge gave improper instructions to the jury, or when there are proven allegations of wrongdoing among jury members, but never because the court simply disagrees with the verdict. That is what happened in the Stewart case and some other recent cases that have been reversed in favor of Big Money.

My great-grandfather, Stephen Turner, who helped write the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, is probably rolling over in his grave. Instead of punishing Prudential for breech of contract, the Supreme Court rewarded the company for what most reasonable people would consider bad-boy behavior. As a result, the Stewart family will have to pay court costs and Prudential's legal fees—something that could send them into bankruptcy—all because they demanded that an insurance company honor its policy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known Alston for over 50 years, the two of us having grown up in the same tiny Delta town. When he left the Delta, it was to pursue a career in law, and when I left, it was to pursue first a career as a social worker and then a career as a journalist. Currently, Alston and I are co-writing a book titled "Immune to Prosecution."

For at least 30 years, Alston and I have had an ongoing debate: he argues that Mississippi's court system is a stalwart defender of justice, and I argue that courts are essentially corrupt vehicles for Big Money that feed judges a steady diet of cash in the form of campaign contributions.

The Prudential bail-out made me want to know more. I discovered that this court has a history of overturning jury verdicts that go against Big Money, especially Big Money professions—insurance companies, banks, doctors, lawyers—that also have a history of campaign contributions to court members.

My curiosity aroused, I looked at the justices' campaign contributions filed with the secretary of state's office. Would it surprise you to learn that Justice Jess Dickinson, who voted to let Prudential off the hook, took more than $1 million in 2002 from various insurance companies, physicians and lawyers, including the law firm that represented Prudential?

Would it surprise you to learn that Presiding Justice William Waller Jr., who also voted for Prudential, took in $357,799 during 2004 from lawyers, physicians and insurance companies, including American Bankers Insurance, a company that lists Prudential as its "premier partner"?

Also taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars were Chief Justice Jim Smith ($316,077), Justice Mike Randolph ($585,417) and Justice George Carlson ($276,275). I could go on.

When it comes to Mississippi justice, you apparently get what you pay for.

One good thing came out of this ruling: It allowed me, finally, to win my long-standing debate with Alston.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment