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On March 9, 2015, Judge W. Neil Thomas, III of the Circuit Court of Hamilton County, Tenn., found the statutory caps for noneconomic damages in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 to be unconstitutional. The statute, enacted in 2011, added a cap for recovery of noneconomic damages of $750,000 per injured plaintiff.
The ruling was entered in an automobile negligence case that had been filed by Donald M. Clark and Beverly J. Clark. The defendants included Aimee L. Cain, AT&T Corp., AT&T Mobility, LLC, and Robert E. Cooper, Jr. in his official capacity as Attorney General for the State of Tennessee. The Clarks sought noneconomic damages in excess of $750,000, asking for $22.5 million.
Cain and the AT&T defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment. They argued that they should be granted summary judgment to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims for noneconomic damages over $750,000 based on the language of § 29-39-102. Judge Thomas denied the motion. Judge Thomas concluded that he was obligated to look at the constitutionality of the statute itself as a member of the judicial branch. He noted that the legislature justified the limits on jury awards because it would help to ensure economic predictability of jury awards for businesses. Judge Thomas added a footnote stating that he found no study or data to support this reasoning. He noted that the actual purpose of the law was not to reform tort law but to limit juries and their verdicts, thereby expressing distrust for the ability of a jury to weigh the facts and evidence.
He then proceeded to the legislative history and found that the right to a jury trial was fundamental, thereby requiring a compelling State interest to curtail it. Applying strict scrutiny to the statute, Judge Thomas found no such interest and concluded that the statute was unconstitutional. Judge Thomas also found that it was appropriate to determine the constitutionality at this point, even though the jury had not yet returned a verdict for two reasons. First, AT&T had asked for adjudication of the issue. Second, the court and a jury needed to know, before deliberations, if the award would be constrained or it would undermine the jury’s work.
If this decision is upheld, this will put Tennessee in line with other states that have found damage caps to be unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court, almost exactly a year ago, issued a decision, discussed here, striking statutory caps in medical malpractice cases. Similar results have also occurred in several other states, including Illinois, Lebron v. Gottlieb Mem. Hosp., 237 Ill. 2d 217, 930 N.E.2d 895, 2010 Ill. LEXIS 26, 341 Ill. Dec. 381 (Ill. 2010), Mississippi, Learmonth v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 710 F.3d 249, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 4035, 2013 WL 708170 (5th Cir. Miss. 2013), and Missouri, Watts ex rel. Watts v. Lester E. Cox Med. Ctrs., 376 S.W.3d 633, 2012 Mo. LEXIS 155 (Mo. 2012). Other states have declined to follow Florida, including Indiana, Vandam Estate v. Mid-America Sound, 2015 Ind. App. LEXIS 13, 25 N.E.3d 165 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015), and much less recently, Idaho, Kirkland by & ex rel. Kirkland v. Blaine County Med. Ctr. (in Re Order Certifying Questions of Law), 4 P.3d 1115, 134 Idaho 464, 2000 Ida. LEXIS 58 (Idaho 2000), and Nebraska, Gourley v. Neb. Methodist Health Sys., 265 Neb. 918, 663 N.W.2d 43, 2003 Neb. LEXIS 78 (Neb. 2003).
The constitutionality of legislative caps under § 29-39-102 had previously been raised in Tennessee federal court, Gummo v. Ward, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140798, 2013 WL 5446074 (M.D. Tenn. Sept. 30, 2013). In that judicial opinion, however, U.S. District Judge Kevin H. Sharp refused to consider the issue, finding that it was not ripe for adjudication prior to the rendering of a jury verdict.
This case bears watching, as an appellate ruling on the issue would place Tennessee on the map of states that have considered the issue of legislative damage caps and either upheld them or struck them down.
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