Is There a Cap on Damage Awards in Tennessee?
Johnson City Medical Malpractice Attorneys Fighting For You
In 2011, Tennessee legislators ushered in “caps” to damages
in civil cases in Tennessee. A cap of $750,000 on non-economic damages,
it was insisted, would enable Tennessee business interests to better predict
their civil damage exposure. Further, they would give Tennessee a competitive
edge in attracting new business interests to the State. A cap of $500,000
on punitive damages was also instituted regardless of whether or not such
damage would effectively serve to punish or deter the particular wrongdoer.
The law also provides that the jury is never to be told that caps exist. Rather,
after a jury’s verdict is read and politely excused, the judge must reduce
the jury’s verdict to the cap.
How do these caps work in practice? Consider the case of a hypothetical
retired school teacher named Charlotte. Charlotte worked as a school teacher
for 30 years. Her husband passed away due to cancer when he was 70 years
old, just as Charlotte was retiring from the school system. They had hoped
to enjoy retirement together but his cancer left Charlotte a widow. Charlotte,
now alone, begins collecting social security at age 62. She is a talented
artist and loves reading and writing poetry. She loves music and the arts.
None of her interests make her any money, but she finds ways to scrape
by on her social security and spend special time with friends and family.
Charlotte needs a surgery on her right knee. The day before the surgery,
she is admitted into the hospital and undergoes some preoperative testing,
including a plain film chest x-ray to look for pneumonia. The radiologist
sees no contraindications for surgery, but notes a suspicious lesion in
the lung that he believes should be tested for cancer. While this report
is sent to the doctor responsible for Charlotte’s care while in
the hospital, he does nothing to order additional testing on the suspicious
lesion. More important, he fails to specifically notify Charlotte’s
primary care physician of the need for follow up, so that when Charlotte
is discharged from the hospital after successful knee surgery, she believes
that all is well. 9 months later, Charlotte experiences acute onset of
back pain. Testing reveals lung cancer has grown and metastasized to the
spine and brain. Had Charlotte been told of the suspicious lesion and
had the cancer been treated soon after it was seen by the radiologist,
she would have survived. Charlotte dies within a month, leaving children,
grandchildren, and friends to mourn her loss.
The Value of Human Life
Charlotte has very little in medical expenses, because hospice was called
almost immediately after her diagnosis. She has no lost wages. Effectively
then, the value of her life is made up entirely of what is referred to
as “non-economic damages.” In this hypothetical case, non-economic
damages are the injuries suffered by her children due to the loss of Charlottes’
comfort, affection, and love. In Tennessee, Charlotte’s case can
be tried before a jury. If the jury finds that medical care breached the
standard of care, the jury can award damages. Here, a jury could easily
award surviving children several millions of dollars to account for the
loss of Charlotte, who could have lived for decades, providing immeasurable
love and companionship to her family. If the jury were to award, say,
two million dollars for this claim, they would be politely thanked by
the judge and released from their service. However,
after the jury has been excused, but before the surviving children leave the
Courtroom, the judge would reduce the jury’s award to the maximum
non-economic damage in Tennessee, or $750,000.00. So not only has the
legislature decided that the value of human life in these cases is limited
to $750,000.00, they have also decided that the jury must be kept in the
dark about the cap.
An observation: $750,000 is a lot of money. But to Charlotte’s family,
$750,000 is a shockingly small amount to represent all that Charlotte
was and all that Charlotte meant to her family. Keep in mind, that in
order to get the cap, one almost assuredly has to try the case. In a medical
malpractice setting, that often means spending $50,000 to $150,000 or
more, rendering the cost versus benefits of proceeding to trial questionable
at best. If any effort is made to settle the case, the Defendants’
insurance companies will usually pay less than their worst day in Court.
Doing what is “right” does not motivate the insurance company.
The decision about whether and how much to pay is a business decision,
based on perceived exposure if the case is tried. So, if they know a judge
must reduce a large verdict to $750,000.00, the insurance companies will
not typically authorize a settlement that gets anywhere near that figure.
Injured? We Are Here to Help
Our firm has seen first-hand how the damage caps can prevent families from
obtaining anything close to justice. Our goal is to do everything that
we can ethically and legally do to obtain justice for our clients and
their families. Damage caps make this goal more difficult to achieve.
However, we will never stop fighting.
If you or a loved one has been injured due to another’s wrongdoing,
the Johnson City personal injury attorneys at The Haynes Firm are ready
to put their experience and reputation to work for you. Call 423-928-0165 for a