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Tennessee Supreme Court Approves Cap on Personal Injury Jury Awards

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The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a 2011 state law last week capping a maximum amount on damages juries can award in personal injury lawsuits. The decision reverses previous rulings in two of the state’s lower courts.

In a split 3-2 decision, the court determined the state act to place caps on non-economic damages does not violate a person’s constitutional right to a jury trial in civil cases. The law was enacted nine years ago as part of former Republican Governor, Bill Haslam’s, tort reform package. Widely considered to be a business-friendly act designed to limit how much corporate bad actors and civil wrongdoers must pay for damages they inflict, the law sets a limit of $750,000 for pain, suffering, disfigurement, and reputation damage via acts of libel or slander.

The decision is reportedly in direct response to a lawsuit initially filed in 2016 by California resident, Jodi McClay, after sustaining a serious foot injury when a wooden panel of a beverage cooler fell on her in a store at Nashville International Airport.

McClay was awarded $930,000 in non-economic damages by a jury in 2019, but she objected when the court moved to reduce the award by nearly $200,000 to meet Tennessee’s cap. Via her petition to the state high court, McClay presented the argument that the cap infringed “her right to a trial by jury,” violated “the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches,” and discriminated against women.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, a Haslam appointee, asserted, “One could view the statutory cap on noneconomic damages as a limitation on the available remedy for certain causes of action, or as an abrogation of causes of action for claims exceeding the statutory limit.” Additionally, Bivins wrote, “Under either view, the General Assembly was within its legislative authority to alter the common law by enacting the statutory cap on noneconomic damages.”

The split decision received passionate opposition from the dissenting members.

Dissenting Justice, Cornelia Clark, wrote that the decision “overturned 223 years of judicial precedent” and therefore “the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” Clark, an appointee of former Democratic Governor, Phil Bredesen, added in her written dissent that by capping damages, the law “usurps and replaces the jury’s constitutionally protected function of determining damages with an arbitrary ceiling on damages mostly unrelated to the specific facts and circumstance of each litigant’s claim.”

In a separate dissenting opinion, Justice Sharon G. Lee wrote that the damages cap “unconstitutionally takes away a citizen’s right to trial by jury on noneconomic damages.” Lee called the cap “one-size-fits-all,” and said it “fails to consider the extent of a party’s noneconomic losses.” “The injured party has to accept the reduced award of damages,” she said, noting that as a result, “The jury’s role in a civil jury trial becomes a mere procedural formality.”

Democrat Raumesh Akbari, a Tennessee State Senator from Memphis, charged that, “The Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling…belittles the pain and suffering of every victim who has been wrongfully injured and robbed of their chance to live a normal life.” “In the most serious cases, there’s zero justice in a predetermined, one-size-fits-all jury verdict. And there’s no justice in [the] ruling,” she said.

Proponents of the new law claim it will have a significant positive impact on improving Tennessee’s business climate and attracting companies from out-of-state to establish headquarters there.

Lieutenant Governor, Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, is reported to have commended the high court’s decision. A spokesperson for McNally said, “[The Lieutenant Governor] voted for the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 and is grateful the latest court decision upheld the law. The caps on noneconomic and punitive damages cut down on frivolous lawsuits while still giving plaintiffs ample avenues to seek justice.”

In 2019, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down this specific cap on damages designed to punish the corporate bad actor or civil wrongdoer, declaring it a violation of both the state and federal constitutions. However, the appeals court declined to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the matter. Many opponents of the new law have criticized that decision by the appeals court.

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion is considered to be a landmark ruling, and is part of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act.