- Associated Press - Saturday, May 13, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled that a former tenant can sue a Jackson apartment complex where she was raped even though she signed an arbitration clause in her lease to settle disputes privately.

The 8-1 decision on Thursday found that the tenant, suing under the pseudonym “Jane Doe,” had signed an agreement to arbitrate only disputes about her lease, and not about what happened in the parking lot where she was kidnapped.

Increasing numbers of companies have put private arbitration clauses into contracts in recent decades, making it difficult to bring lawsuits. Some consumer advocates and plaintiffs lawyers say people are being stripped of their right to a day before a judge or a jury. But Mississippi’s Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld arbitration clauses in contracts in recent years.

Thursday’s ruling could make it a little easier for people to escape arbitration clauses. But Jackson lawyer Robert Gibbs, the secretary of the Mississippi Bar’s alternative dispute resolution section, predicted the effect would be minimal. He said companies will likely react by broadening their arbitration clauses.

“The merchant will just change their arbitration clause to make it all-inclusive,” Gibbs said Friday. “As long as it’s all-inclusive, the dispute is going to be resolved through arbitration.”



In the Jane Doe case, a tenant of the Hallmark Gardens apartment complex in north Jackson sued the complex’s owner and security firm, plus managers and employees of both. She contended the owner and security firm were negligent in April 2014, when two men kidnapped her in the parking lot at gunpoint, forced her into her own car, pistol-whipped her, then repeatedly raped her.

Hallmark and the security firm both sought to settle the dispute through arbitration. Hinds County Circuit Court Jeff Weill Sr. granted the motion. But Associate Justice James D. Maxwell, writing for the majority, said the arbitration agreement was too narrow to force Jane Doe to resolve her claims through private dispute resolution, and that Weill should have allowed the suit to proceed.

“The question we must decide here is: Did the parties agree to submit to arbitration Jane’s claims against Hallmark? After review, we find they did not,” Maxwell wrote, sending the case back to Hinds County Circuit Court. “The parties simply did not contemplate arbitrating Jane’s assault- and rape-based lawsuit…, unrelated to the rights and obligations of the lease.”

Presiding Justice Jess Dickinson was the only dissenter, saying Jane Doe was only in the parking lot because she had leased an apartment, and thus the arbitration cause covering the lease should cover this dispute, too.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: https://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/Jeff_Amy.

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