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The Roof Is On Fire: Trial Court Finds Tennessee Non-Economic Damages Cap Unconstitutional

The Roof Is On Fire: Trial Court Finds Tennessee Non-Economic Damages Cap Unconstitutional

Just four years ago, the Tennessee legislature passed the Civil Justice Act of 2011, making it the latest in a growing number of states to statutorily cap the maximum amount of non-economic damages available to plaintiffs in tort suits. This law was part of a growing effort by many states to enact tort reform legislation in order to limit the possibility of high dollar jury verdicts and benefit economic growth within a state. However, Judge W. Neil Thomas III of the Circuit Court of Hamilton County recently ruled that the Civil Justice Act of 2011’s non-economic damage caps violate the Tennessee Constitution.

In Clark v. Cain et. al., Dkt. No. 12C1147, the Court was faced with a Complaint that sought non-economic damages in excess of the statutorily mandated cap of $750,000. The Defendant, AT&T Corporation, filed a motion for summary judgment asking the Court to dismiss the Plaintiff’s case to the extent it sought damages in excess of that statutory cap. Rather than dismissing the claim according to the plain terms of the statute, however, the Court joined a growing list of judges who have ruled that such statutory caps are unconstitutional.

The Court based its decision on the theory that limiting the amount of non-economic damages available to a plaintiff violates that plaintiff’s constitutional right to a trial by jury. Specifically, the Court reasoned that damages are part and parcel with the jury’s core function, which is to resolve disputes. Because the Court found that a necessary part of each jury’s role is to determine a remedy for the dispute at issue, it ruled that the calculation of that remedy is part of the fundamental right to a trial by jury granted in the Tennessee Constitution. As a fundamental right, the Court reasoned that the statutory caps could only pass constitutional muster if their asserted government interest, economic development, passed the extremely high bar of strict scrutiny. After noting that no State interest had ever passed the strict scrutiny test in Tennessee, the Court found that economic development did not represent an interest sufficient to pass constitutional muster, meaning the statutory caps could not stand.

While the trial Court in Clark is not the first to strike down statutory damage caps on constitutional grounds, it is the first to rule that the right to a jury determination of damages is a fundamental constitutional right subject to strict scrutiny. It drew this conclusion from a historical examination of the right to a trial by jury in America, tracing the origin of that right as far back as the Declaration of Independence and the Magna Carta. Further, the Court concentrated on the Tennessee Constitution’s unique description of the jury trial as a right that must remain “inviolate.” Only time will tell whether the Court’s reasoning, based largely on an understanding of the historical importance of juries in America, can withstand the practical reality that Tennessee has already cut down on the role of juries through legislatively created processes like workmen’s compensation laws. It is not clear that the Clark Court’s understanding of the “inviolate” nature of a jury trial can co-exist with the fact that in Tennessee certain types of tort remedies are already determined by legislatively-created resolution methods rather than by juries, and in the case of workmen’s compensation laws that has been true for over a hundred years. Perhaps the Tennessee Court of Appeals will get the chance in Clark to help better define which portions of a Tennessee’s jury’s decisions must, in fact, remain “inviolate.”