A Circuit Court judge from Hamilton County, TN ruled recently that Tennessee’s $750,000 cap on certain civil awards is unconstitutional. This will likely trigger a Supreme Court review of the initial Tort Reform push that was started in 2011.
This ruling is the latest in a very complex and protracted fight over Tort Reform. In 2012, the subject Tennessee Civil Justice Act at §29-39-101 mandated that doctors and other businesses were limited to personal injury lawsuit awards of $750,000 in Tennessee. However, more recently Judge W. Neil Thomas concisely ruled that the State does not have a constitutional right to cap non-economic damages, i.e. pain and suffering damages, to be awarded plaintiffs.
Judge Neil further added that this previous law was insulting to juries who should be allowed to award damages based on their own assessment of the evidence, and not be hindered by an arbitrary number. In his decision, Judge Neil said, “the soul thrust of the legislation is not to change the law of responsibility between individuals, but to limit, and therefore, express distrust of, juries and their verdicts”.
The case that triggered this battle was brought forward by individuals who sought damages of $22.5 million from Aimee Cain and AT&T. When AT&T moved for summary to dismiss non-economic damages claims in excess of $750,000, Judge Neil ruled that would not be possible because he did not interpret the current cap as constitutional. This ruling felt almost historic, because harkened back to the days of King Henry II where there was “unfettered access to a fair jury trial…a fundamental right guaranteed in our constitution.”
The cap as it exists now in Tennessee extends to $1 million in any instances of catastrophic injuries, such as partial paralysis or severe burns. However, Tennessee is just one state of many—courts in Florida also recently found that caps on non-economic damages, i.e. pain and suffering, are unconstitutional. It is worth keeping a close eye on any appeal in Tennessee, and hopefully other states begin to follow form.