Is There a Cap on Medical Malpractice Damage Awards in Tennessee?

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In 2011, Tennessee legislators ushered in “caps” to damages in civil cases in Tennessee. They insisted that a cap of $750,000 on non-economic damages 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.

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How Tennessee’s Medical Malpractice Caps Work

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 importantly, he fails to specifically notify Charlotte’s primary care physician of the need for follow up, so when Charlotte is discharged from the hospital after successful knee surgery, she believes that all is well.

Nine 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.

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The “Value” of a 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.

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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.

Verdicts & Settlements

A Medical Malpractice Settlement Will Likely Be Much Lower

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 medical malpractice attorneys at The Haynes Firm are ready to put their experience and reputation to work for you.

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