In 3-2 Decision, Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Caps on Noneconomic Damages

In an opinion released February 26, 2020, JODI MCCLAY v. AIRPORT MANAGEMENT SERVICES, LLC, No. M2019-00511-SC-R23-CV, the Tennessee Supreme Court, by a narrow 3-2 margin, has upheld the caps on noneconomic damages enacted by the legislature in its 2011 tort reform legislation.

For the majority, the court summarized the case as follows:

“We accepted certification of the following questions of law from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee regarding the constitutionality of Tennessee’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages, codified at Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102: “(1) Does the noneconomic damages cap in civil cases imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 violate a plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury, as guaranteed in Article I, section 6, of the Tennessee Constitution?; (2) Does the noneconomic damages cap in civil cases imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 violate Tennessee’s constitutional doctrine of separation of powers between the legislative branch and the judicial branch?; (3) Does the noneconomic damages cap in civil cases imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 violate the Tennessee Constitution by discriminating disproportionately against women?” Upon review, we answer each of the District Court’s questions in the negative.”

Chief Justice Bivens wrote the opinion, joined by Justices Kirby and Page. Justices Clark and Lee dissented.

T.C.A. § 29-39-102(a)(2) provides that damage awards may include [c]ompensation for any noneconomic damages suffered by each injured plaintiff not to exceed seven hundred fifty thousand dollars ($750,000) for all injuries and occurrences that were or could have been asserted. The cap is increased to $1,000,000 for certain “catastrophic loss or injury.” T.C.A. §§ 29-39-102(c)-(d). The statute also exempts certain kinds of cases from the cap, such as those in which the defendant had a specific intent to inflict serious physical injury, the defendant was intoxicated, or the defendant committed a felony in causing the injury. T.C.A. § 29-39-102(h), and those where “the defendant intentionally falsified, destroyed or concealed records containing material evidence with the purpose of wrongfully evading liability in the case at issue,” T.C.A. § 29-39-102(h)(2)

So, these unfair and arbitrary limits or ceilings on recovery for pain and suffering and other noneconomic damages in personal injury and wrongful death cases will remain a part of Tennessee law, even though many other states have struck down such caps as unconstitutional.

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