Questioning the Constitutionality of Tennessee’s Cap on Pain and Suffering Damages After an Automobile Accident

Tennessee’s cap on damages for pain and suffering, also known as “non-economic damages,” is unconstitutional according to a recent decision from Judge W. Neil Thomas of the Hamilton County Circuit Court.  The decision is one in a line of several recent rulings to question the constitutionality of many of the provisions enacted under the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011, and to cast doubt on the viability of Tennessee’s legislative efforts at tort reform.Under the statute at issue, plaintiffs seeking damages for pain and suffering as a result of an injury cannot receive more than $750,000 from a jury verdict. In this case, the two plaintiffs, victims of an automobile accident, sought non-economic damages for pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment of life in the amount of $22,500,000.  The defendants, AT&T Corp and Amiee L. Cain, sought to dismiss this claim for damages in excess of the $750,000 cap.

Acknowledging that tort reform was passed in Tennessee under the auspices of being “necessary for economic development in the State of Tennessee,” Judge Thomas nevertheless determined that “there is a right, indeed an obligation, of the judiciary to question the legislative assumption that there are widespread, unfounded jury verdicts that are a detriment to economic development.”

In so questioning, Judge Thomas’ decision held that the constitutional right to trial by jury includes not only the right to have a jury hear the facts of the case and determine liability, but also for the jury to ultimately determine the value of a party’s damages, without interference from the legislature. By limiting the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff who experiences pain and suffering as a result of a car accident or other injury, Judge Thomas held that the statutory cap interferes with the jury’s right to determine damages. “[D]amages being essential to the cause of action in tort, any attempt to limit the jury’s rendition of a damage verdict must be in conflict with the right to jury trial.”

Ultimately, in weighing the fundamental importance of a plaintiff’s right to the full award from a jury for pain and suffering against Tennessee’s alleged interest in supporting economic development, Judge Thomas determined that the justifications of the Tennessee legislature for infringing on the rights of plaintiffs and jurors were “totally insufficient” and failed to meet the strict scrutiny standard required under the Constitution.

Judge Thomas’ decision is a victory for plaintiffs who have experienced a catastrophic injury as a result of an automobile crash or another accident. While the defendants, including AT&T, are likely to appeal the ruling, subsequent victories before the Court of Appeals and Tennessee Supreme Court could signal a return to jury awards that compensate victims for the full extent of the losses and suffering that they have experienced.

Dedicated auto accident attorney Eric Beasley has years of experience representing injured plaintiffs throughout the Tennessee court system. If you have been injured in an accident and are seeking committed and effective legal assistance, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Personal Injury 101, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, August 10, 2015

Tennessee Auto Accident Guide – What to Do and When, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 2, 2015

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