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The Question Remains Unanswered: Tennessee Supreme Court Rules that Ripeness Doctrine Precludes a Decision on the Constitutionality of Tort Reform Until After a Jury Verdict is Rendered

Commonly known as “Tort Reform,” the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 (the Act”), Tenn. Code Ann. 29-39-101 et seq., limits the amount an injured plaintiff may recover for non-economic damages to a cap of $750,000 (except in instances of intentional misconduct, records destruction, or conduct under the influence of alcohol or drugs).[1] In the March 2015 opinion of Clark v. Cain, et al., Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge W. Neil Thomas, III ruled that Tennessee’s cap on non-economic damages that may be awarded to injured plaintiffs was unconstitutional.

In Clark, a car wreck case, the plaintiffs sought an award of non-economic damages greater than $750,000, and also asserted a claim that the statutory damage caps were unconstitutional. In the early stages of the case, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment that the damage caps were constitutional and the plaintiffs could not recover more than $750,000 in non-economic damages. The State, as an intervening party, argued that the constitutionality of the Asct was not ripe for judicial decision because the plaintiffs had not yet been awarded a judgment in excess $750,000 to which the damages caps would apply. Judge Thomas, however, disagreed. The trial court ruled on the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment, but held the statutory damage caps were unconstitutional. Judge Thomas reasoned that the right to a jury trial is a fundamental right, and that the statutory cap interfered with a jury’s right to determine damages.

Of course, a decision of a Circuit Court has little precedential effect, so the question across the State was whether the Tennessee Supreme Court would address the issue. The defendants filed an interlocutory appeal, which was ultimately accepted by Supreme Court. On October 16, 2015, in a per curiam opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued an order vacating the trial court’s judgment. Clark v. Cain, No. E2015-00949-SC-R11-CV, 2015 Tenn. LEXIS 829, *1 (Tenn. Oct. 16, 2015).

The Supreme Court held that the trial court “acted prematurely” in considering the defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment and constitutionality of the Act before a jury had even rendered a verdict. The Court reasoned that the statutory cap on non-economic damages is not even relevant in a case unless and until a plaintiff receives a jury verdict in excess of $750,000. In other words, the issues in this case were not “ripe” for the Court to consider. The Supreme Court’s decision is in line with its recent opinions in other cases, in which the Court refused to rule on constitutional questions that were theoretical and abstract because they were based on future events that might or might not occur. See West v. Schofield, 2015 WL 4035399 (Tenn. July 2, 2015).

The Supreme Court’s decision leaves open the question of whether the cap on non-economic damages will in fact be ruled survive a constitutional challenge if and when the question is presented to the Court following a jury verdict that exceeds the statutory cap. The practical implications of the ruling prevent defendants and plaintiffs alike from seeking a ruling on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Tort Reform damage caps until after a case has been tried to a jury. While there is no doubt that the Supreme Court will ultimately rule on this issue in the future, any attempts to seek interlocutory ruling during early stages of a case have been foreclosed. Further, through Cain and other recent cases, the Tennessee Supreme Court has sent a clear message that Tennessee courts should pay strict adherence to the doctrine of ripeness with respect to all issues in a case.

by —Charles I. Malone

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[1] The Act also provides for an escalated damage cap of $1 million for certain types of injuries.