Victims in personal injury cases can be eligible for compensation for damages related to the injury. Compensation is awarded for two types of damages: economic and non-economic damages. Economic damages, like medical bills and property damage, are awarded according to the losses or injuries in each case. States do not limit the amount of economic damages that can be rewarded.
But about half of all of the states do set limits for non-economic damages like pain and suffering. Caps for non-economic damages range from about $200,000 to $1 million, and often depend on the circumstances of the case.
Tennessee is a state that does limit the non-economic damages. The current non-economic damage cap for the state is $750,000, but this cap has faced legal challenges in the last year.
In 2011, Tennessee lawmakers passed the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011, also known as Tennessee's Tort Reform Act. The Act established the $750,000 cap (with a few exceptions) for non-economic damages in personal injury cases. These caps are intended to keep the non-economic damage awards from serving a retributive purpose. If the negligence that caused the injury was severe, juries can award punitive damages.
Tennessee Code § 29-39-101 (2014) defines non-economic damages as: “physical and emotional pain; suffering; inconvenience; physical impairment; disfigurement; mental anguish; emotional distress; loss of society, companionship, and consortium; injury to reputation; humiliation; noneconomic effects of disability, including loss of enjoyment of normal activities, benefits and pleasures of life and loss of mental or physical health, well-being or bodily functions; and all other nonpecuniary losses of any kind or nature.”
The case that could change the cap is Donald M. Clark et al. v. Aimee L. Cain et al. The plaintiffs Donald M Clark et al. filed a negligence claim against AT&T (Aimee L. Cain et al.) for damages from a car collision. The judge on the case, Judge W. Neil Thomas of Hamilton County, ruled in March of 2015 that the cap on non-economic damages was unconstitutional.
Judge Thomas argued that the non-economic damage cap was unconstitutional because it failed to allow the jury to set it's own award amount. But in October, the Tennessee Supreme Court found the judge's ruling to be preemptive because the jury had yet to attempt to award over $750,000 (the current cap) for the case.
No further rulings have been made on this case.
While some believe that the cap will remain, others are already preparing to fight the removal of the cap. The Tennessee Medical Association is proposing an amendment to the state's constitution that would allow the Tennessee General Assembly the right to set caps for non-economic damages, thereby assuring that the current $750,000 cap is legal.
A proposed amendment would need to pass two separate General Assemblies before getting on to a general ballot, meaning that an amendment could come in 2018 at the earliest.
For now, the damage caps remain in place.