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Nathaniel Fick
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Damage Caps Unconstitutional? Tennessee Judge Says So

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Non-economic damage caps have become the law of the land in many states during the past decade, despite the controversial nature of these statutes. On one hand, damage caps are the corner stone of the tort reform movement, which seeks to limit payout of excessive damage awards. But they also limit the compensation available for families of victims who have died or been severely injured.

Tennessee Ruling

On March 9, a Tennessee judge ruled that a state law that caps the amount of money that a person can be awarded in a personal injury lawsuit for noneconomic damages is unconstitutional. The ruling, sure to set off appeals and more controversy, was issued in a case involving AT&T.

Tennessee’s damage caps law was passed in 2011 as part of the Civil Justice Act, and limits personal injury payouts made by doctors and businesses to $750,000. Judge W. Neil Thomas, who issued the ruling said the law is an affront to juries, which should be able to award damages as they see fit.

If the March decision is upheld, Tennessee will be in line with other states that have found damage caps unconstitutional, including:

  • Florida, where the Supreme court struck statutory damage caps in medical malpractice cases in 2014
  • Illinois, where in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that the state’s damage cap statute violated the separation of powers clause in the Illinois Constitution
  • Missouri, where the Supreme Court struck down the state’s punitive damages cap statute in 2012, reasoning that it violates the plaintiff’s right to trial by jury

Other states, including Indiana, Idaho, and Nebraska, have declined to follow Florida and have upheld the constitutionality of damage caps. In Mississippi, a federal appeals court ruled in 2013 that Mississippi’s $1 million limit on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases is constitutional.

In Maryland, a damage cap remains firming in place in all Maryland personal injury cases, including malpractice claims, according to 2010 Maryland Court of Appeals opinion in Lockshin v. Semsker.