Tennessee's Limit on "Non-Economic Damages" declared Unconstitutional

March 12, 2015

A Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge has declared unconstitutional Tennessee's statute limiting damages for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life in some tort cases. The decision by Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas III came in Clark v. Cain, et. al, in which the plaintiffs sought $22,500,000 in damages for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life, also known as "non-economic damages." Some of the defendants, including AT&T Corp., had sought partial summary judgment in the case based on the fact that the plaintiffs had requested damages in excess of the limits contained in the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011, also known as the Tort Reform Act. That statute, which is effective for injuries occurring after October 1, 2011, limits non-economic damages to $750,000 per plaintiff, with some exceptions. In this ruling issued on March 9, Judge Thomas held that the right to a jury trial is a fundamental right, and that the statute limiting damages interfered with the right to a jury trial to determine the damages. Judge Thomas noted that he could find no study or data that Tennessee jury verdicts are excessive or not supported by the evidence presented, or that limits on damages either positively or negatively affects economic development in the state. Judge Thomas also noted that limits varied greatly in other states with caps on non-economic damages. Judge Thomas' ruling likely will result in a challenge in Tennessee appellate courts and review of the statute by the Tennessee Legislature. The Legislature passed the Act in 2011, based on the argument that larger jury verdicts would hurt the state's ability to attract and keep business.

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