The Tennessee Supreme Court, in an opinion published February 26, 2020, upheld Tennessee’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages in civil cases, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102, which generally limits noneconomic damages, including pain and suffering, permanent injury, and loss of enjoyment of life, to $750,000.
The matter came before the Court in connection with a personal injury case, Jodi McClay v. Airport Management. Services, LLC. In that case, Plaintiff Jodi McClay filed suit in federal court against Defendant Airport Management Services, LLC seeking damages for injuries she sustained in a store at the Nashville International Airport in August 2016. The case went to trial, and a jury returned a verdict for the Plaintiff in the amount of $444,500 for future medical expenses and $930,000 for noneconomic damages. After the judgment was entered, the Defendant moved to apply the statutory cap to reduce the noneconomic damages award to $750,000. The Plaintiff responded, arguing the statutory cap was unconstitutional.
In response to the Defendant’s motion and the Plaintiff’s objection, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee certified three questions of law to the Tennessee Supreme Court, asking it to determine whether Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102’s damages cap (1) violated a Plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury, as guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution, (2) violated Tennessee’s constitutional doctrine of separation of powers between the legislative and the judicial branch, and (3) violated the Tennessee Constitution’s equal protection clause by discriminating disproportionately against women. The Court accepted certification of the questions, considered numerous amicus briefs, and heard oral argument on the matter.
Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court, focusing on the General Assembly’s legislative authority to promulgate facially neutral, substantive law, even if it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, concluded that Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102’s cap on noneconomic damages: (1) does not violate a Plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury, (2) does not violate the doctrine of separation of powers, and (3) does not disproportionately discriminate against women.
Statutory caps on damages have been a hot-button issue for some time. They can be found in many different areas of the law and their enforceability has been challenged, with mixed results, in jurisdictions across the country. At least a far as Tennessee is concerned, the law now appears to be clear, absent future legislative amendments.