Tennessee Supreme Hears Direct Challenge to Caps on Noneconomic Damages

On September 4th the Tennessee Supreme court heard oral arguments in Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC, as to whether or not Tennessee’s cap on noneconomic damages is constitutional. The case came to the Court by way of three certified questions from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.  The jury awarded Ms. McClay $444,500 for future medical expenses and $930,000 for noneconomic damages in a personal injury case.  The trial court entered judgment in accordance with the verdict, and the Defendant, Airport Management Services, moved to apply T.C.A. § 29-39-102, Tennessee’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages.  Pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 23, the District Court certified three questions of state law to the Supreme Court:  (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 discrimination disproportionately against women?

Click here for a link to a TV news report on the case from Knoxville, where the case was argued.

Obviously, the outcome of this case will have direct impact on pending cases throughout the state.  Noneconomic damages are defined by T.C.A. § 29-39-101(2) as, “damages, to the extent they are provided by applicable law, for: 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.”

We hope the Tennessee Supreme Court will follow the recent trend of other state high courts which have overturned such arbitrary caps on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases. For instance see Beason v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc., 2019 OK 28, where the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that the state’s $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages was unconstitutional in a case where the jury had awarded $5,000,000 in noneconomic damages.  In that case the plaintiff had been horribly injured in an industrial accident, undergoing two amputations on parts of his arm.

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