Tennessee Tort Reform Act Ruled Unconstitutional


March 12, 2015 11:23AM

On Monday, a circuit court in Chattanooga took the rare step of declaring a key achievement of Governor Haslam’s to be unconstitutional. Passed in 2011, Tennessee’s Tort Reform Act set a cap on recovery in personal injury suits at $750,000 for “noneconomic damages” like pain and suffering. This specific case arose from an auto accident where the plaintiffs asked for $22.5 million. When the defendants argued that the amount exceeded the cap, the judge struck down the law as unconstitutional because it violated the right to trial by jury. In a sweeping ruling, the judge held that the cap on damages violated Tennessee’s constitutional guarantee to an “inviolate” right to a jury trial. Legally, this guarantees citizens the same rights to a trial by a jury as it did when the State Constitution was ratified in 1796. Because the judge decided that only juries determined damages historically, he ruled the cap unconstitutional. The judge didn’t buy the legislature’s reasons for passing the law. He expressed skepticism towards the legislature’s stated goal of facilitating economic growth, dismissing it as “merely an economic interest.” He also wrote that he could find no studies showing that excessive damages impact economic development. The judge first noted that the legislature cited no studies when it passed the law, but shortly after, he observed that the legislature did rely on one study that he found unconvincing. This case is sure to be the first skirmish in a long fight. Much ink will be spilled. Doubtless jury determinations of fault and damages are historically a fundamental right. But does that mean that any award, no matter how excessive, may not be reduced even after the jury has finished its work? Here, the opinion is less convincing. Different state courts have fallen on both sides of this question. The court’s broad statements regarding the absence of any real evidence to support the legislature’s goal seems, at the least, overstated. Many organizations, Beacon included, have produced studies showing the positive impact damages caps have on the economy. By so closely scrutinizing the legislature’s reasoning for passing the law, the judge seemed to be assuming a classic policy function better left to lawmakers. If the legislature’s interest in “merely” promoting economic growth is not compelling, then it begs the question: what should they be doing? -Braden H. Boucek