A Hamilton County circuit court judge ruled Monday that Tennessee’s $750,000 cap on certain civil jury awards violates the state constitution, possibly setting up a Tennessee Supreme Court review of Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2011 tort reform initiative.
Monday’s ruling is the latest step in the complicated and long-running fight over tort reform, which in Tennessee was last tweaked in 2011 as part of the Civil Justice Act. That act decreed that doctors and other businesses are limited to personal injury lawsuit payouts of $750,000.
Judge W. Neil Thomas argued in a ruling filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court on Monday afternoon that the state doesn’t have a constitutional right to cap noneconomic damages, which he says should be called “pain and suffering damages,” paid to plaintiffs. In a harsh rebuke of the law, Thomas says it is an affront to juries, which should be able to award damages as they see fit.
(Note: Article I, Section 6, of the Tennessee constitution says the ‘right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate’ and the basic argument is that, if the legislature is restricting damages a jury can award, the right of trial by jury is not inviolate.)
“The sole thrust of the legislation is not to change the law of responsibility between individuals but to limit, and, therefore, express distrust of, juries and their verdicts,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas’ opinion could lead to the law being struck down if Tennessee’s Supreme Court agrees with his arguments.
“You’re kidding me,” stunned House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said when informed of Thomas’ ruling by a Times Free Press reporter at the state Capitol Monday evening.
McCormick said he’s “terribly disappointed” by the ruling and hopes the state will appeal it. State lawmakers should be ready to correct any problems, he said.
“That’s the first I’ve heard anybody saying that would be unconstitutional, that lawyers would be limited in what kind of money they would make through lawsuits,” McCormick said. “It sounds like something that the trial lawyers should be celebrating and [Thomas] is doing their work for them.”
In the case at issue, Donald and Beverly Clark have sought “pain and suffering” damages of $22.5 million from Aimee Cain and AT&T. When AT&T moved for partial summary judgment to dismiss any noneconomic damages in excess of $750,000, Thomas ruled that wouldn’t be possible because he does not interpret the current cap as constitutional.
Note: The TFP has the full text of Judge Thomas’ ruling posted HERE.