Courtroom with empty benches.

TN Supreme Court will hear challenge to non-economic damage caps

The Tennessee Supreme Court decided this week to hear a case challenging the caps on non-economic damages in Tennessee. The court’s opinion may influence a federal judge’s decision on whether to declare the state damage caps unconstitutional.

The state currently caps jury awards for noneconomic damages at $750,000, or $1 million in exceptional situations. If a jury awards a plaintiff more than the allowed amount, the judge will reduce the plaintiff’s damages to meet the cap.

Tennessee has capped non-economic damages for the past eight years, since the 2011 passage of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act. This could change, however, depending on the court’s opinion on the latest case cap-challenging case.

Ankle injury awarded $930,000 non-economic damages

In 2006, plaintiff Jodi McClay was on her way to catch a flight in the Nashville airport when she stopped to buy bottled water from a Hudson News bookshop. McClay failed to notice that a large board had been left leaning against the water cooler. When she closed the cooler door, the board fell and crushed her ankle, causing significant damage.

McClay brought suit in the federal district court for the Middle District of Tennessee. At the conclusion of her trial, the jury awarded her $444,500 to compensate for medical bills and time lost from work, plus $930,000 in non-economic damages for pain, suffering, and diminished quality of life.

Hudson News’ attorneys disputed the jury award for McClay’s non-economic damages, asking that the court impose Tennessee’s $750,000 damage cap. McClay’s attorneys disagreed, arguing that the state damage cap was unconstitutional and should not be enforced.

Rather than decide the dispute outright, U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court weigh in on the issue. On Monday, the court agreed, noting that the state’s Attorney General would participate as well. Judge Richardson is expected to issue his decision in the McClay case after receiving the supreme court’s opinion. The Supreme Court has not yet set a hearing date for the case.

Punitive damage cap already stricken

This challenge to Tennessee’s non-economic damages cap comes on the heels of a recent Sixth Circuit decision which struck down the punitive damages cap for Tennessee.

In December 2014, a federal jury in the Western District of Tennessee awarded $3 million in punitive damages to plaintiff Teresa Lindenberg. Lindenberg, a widowed mother of two, sued Jackson National Life Insurance for breach of contract after it refused to pay a life insurance policy on her deceased ex-husband.

Much like the McClay case, the panel of judges in the Lindenberg trial also asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutionality of the punitive damages cap. The court declined, however, without stating a reason for its refusal. Lacking the state supreme court’s input, the Sixth Circuit decided the issue on its own and declared Tennessee’s punitive damage cap unconstitutional.

The Tennessee court’s decision to offer its opinion on non-economic damages could imply an intent to enforce such damage caps. However, if the court supports the caps’ removal and the Sixth Circuit follows suit, plaintiffs across Tennessee could see a significant increase in potential damages for their claims.

If you or a loved one has suffered a personal injury and have questions about your potential non-economic damages, call the personal injury damages attorneys at David Randolph Smith & Associates for a free case evaluation