Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Damage Cap on Noneconomic Damages Limits Recovery
Noneconomic damages often make up a large portion of Nuclear Verdicts™. Defense attorneys will be happy to know there is a new interpretation of “damage cap” at play in Tennessee after the ruling in Yebuah v. Ctr. for Urological Treatment, PLC.[i] The Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling is a small step in the right direction for the defense. In the case, the court reviewed whether the statutory cap on noneconomic damages applies separately to a spouse’s loss of consortium claim pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102, thus allowing each plaintiff to receive an award of up to $750,000 in noneconomic damages.
After surgery, the plaintiff learned part of a “Gelport device was unintentionally left in her body after surgery.” Plaintiff sued the doctor, and her husband claimed damages for loss of consortium. The jury awarded $4.5 million in total, including $500,000 to plaintiff’s husband for his consortium claim.
Initially, the trial court “applied the statutory cap on noneconomic damages by entering a judgment in favor of both plaintiffs collectively for a total judgment of $750,000”. The court later changed its judgment, granting the “plaintiffs’ motion to alter or amend and applied the statutory cap to each plaintiff separately.” The trial court entered its judgment: $500,000 for the patient’s husband and $750,000 for the patient.
According to Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102, “there are certain limits on noneconomic damages available. In a civil action, each injured plaintiff may be awarded: (1) Compensation for economic damages suffered by each injured plaintiff; and (2) Compensation for any noneconomic damages suffered by each injured plaintiff not to exceed seven hundred fifty thousand dollars ($750,000) for all injuries and occurrences that were or could have been asserted, regardless of whether the action is based on a single act or omission or a series of acts or omissions that allegedly caused the injuries or death. All noneconomic damages awarded to each injured plaintiff, including damages for pain and suffering, as well as any claims of a spouse or children for loss of consortium or any derivative claim for noneconomic damages, shall not exceed in the aggregate a total of seven hundred fifty thousand dollars ($750,000), unless subsection (c) applies, in which case the aggregate amount shall not exceed one million dollars ($1,000,000).”[ii]
While the Court of Appeals concurred with the trial court’s interpretation, the Tennessee Supreme Court had a different opinion. The Supreme Court relied on its interpretation of legislative intent. According to the Court, subsection (e) would be unnecessary based on the Court of Appeals’ interpretation. Further, the Court opined the most important language here was: “‘all noneconomic damages awarded to each injured plaintiff as well as any claims of a spouse for loss of consortium or any derivative claim for noneconomic damages, shall not exceed in the aggregate a total of $750,000.’”
Family members often add claims for loss of consortium when a family member has been injured. This cap on damages will most significantly impact lawsuits where multiple plaintiffs sue for loss of consortium stemming from the same incident. Even in those situations, the damage cap will be aggregate.