Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Statutory Cap On Noneconomic Damages Does Not Violate Tennessee Constitution

February 26, 2020

In an opinion released today, the Tennessee Supreme Court answered three certified questions from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, holding that Tennessee’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages in civil cases does not violate the Tennessee Constitution. 

This case arose from injuries sustained by the plaintiff, Jodi McClay, in a store at the Nashville International Airport in 2016.  Ms. McClay filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendant, Airport Management Services, LLC, in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.  Following a trial, a jury awarded damages to Ms. McClay, including $930,000 for noneconomic damages.  Her noneconomic damages included pain and suffering, permanent injury, and loss of enjoyment of life.  

After the District Court entered judgment, the defendant sought to apply Tennessee’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages, which limits noneconomic damages to $750,000 in most civil liability actions.  Ms. McClay argued that the statutory cap is unconstitutional, and the District Court then certified three questions of law regarding constitutionality under the Tennessee Constitution to the Tennessee Supreme Court for consideration.  The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted certification of the questions and heard oral argument in the matter.

In the majority opinion, the Supreme Court first held that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages does not violate a plaintiff’s right to a trial by jury.  The Court concluded that the General Assembly’s adoption of the cap on noneconomic damages was consistent with prior case law that had upheld statutes limiting remedies available at common law and statutes abolishing common law causes of action.  Moreover, the Court reasoned that a jury retains the opportunity to make a factual determination as to the amount of noneconomic damages.  Only after that determination does the trial court then limit the award as a matter of law based on the statutory cap.  Second, the Court rejected a challenge to the cap under the separation of powers provision of the Tennessee Constitution.  The Court concluded that the cap is a substantive change in the law that rests within the authority of the legislature and does not interfere with the courts’ authority to apply and interpret the law.  Finally, the Court held that the statutory cap does not violate the equal protection provision of the Tennessee Constitution.  Specifically, the Court concluded that Ms. McClay’s claim that the statute had a disparate impact on women was not a cognizable claim under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee Constitution without proof of a discriminatory purpose.  Accordingly, the majority of the Court held that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages was constitutional under the Tennessee Constitution.

Justice Holly Kirby joined in the majority opinion and also filed a separate opinion further explaining her reasoning for holding that the cap does not violate the constitutional right to a jury trial.  Justice Kirby said that the State’s founders included a right to a jury trial in the constitution to address whether the judge or the jury will decide issues to be resolved in a court case.  It was not intended to prohibit substantive legislative enactments.  Instead, she said, the constitutional provision historically was intended to function as a restraint on judicial power.

 Justice Cornelia A. Clark filed a dissenting opinion.  Justice Clark concluded that the statutory cap violates the right to jury trial provision of the Tennessee Constitution, which guarantees that the right of trial by jury as it existed at common law “shall remain inviolate.” Justice Clark opined that this constitutional provision guarantees litigants the right to have a jury determine both the type and amount of damages.  Justice Clark reasoned that the statutory cap usurps the jury’s constitutionally protected function and renders the jury’s factual findings meaningless. 

Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a separate dissenting opinion stating that the cap renders a jury's verdict for noneconomic damages meaningless when the verdict exceeds the cap.  In addition, she noted that the majority's analysis did not follow previous case law which emphasized that injured parties have a right under the Tennessee Constitution for a jury to decide both the type and the amount of damages awarded at trial.  The cap on noneconomic damages takes away that constitutional right and essentially reduces the jury's role to a mere procedural formality.  Justice Lee's dissenting opinion explains that Tennessee does not have a problem in Tennessee with "runaway juries" and, by using real-life examples, points out that the cap affects only the most seriously injured victims.

To read the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC, authored by Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, as well as the concurring opinion authored by Justice Holly Kirby and the dissenting opinions authored by Justices Cornelia A. Clark and Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.