On March 9, 2015, Judge W. Neil Thomas, III, Hamilton County Circuit Court, ruled that the Tennessee Civil Just Act of 2011’s cap on non-economic damages awarded to injured plaintiffs is unconstitutional. A full copy of Judge Thomas’ Order is here.

In Clark v. Cain, et al.[1], an automobile accident case, AT&T moved the court for partial summary judgment dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for non-economic damages in excess of $750,000, the statutory cap set out in T.C.A. § 29-30-101, et seq. Judge Thomas framed the issue as follows:

First, and obviously, the issue is whether legislative limits on a jury’s determination of pain and suffering damages in a personal injury case are constitutional. Those limits were justified as necessary for economic development in the State of Tennessee. Without those limits, the legislature has found that businesses would not have the economic predictability of jury verdicts for them to move to, or stay in, the State. They further say that these verdicts are widespread and, implicitly, unfounded. The first question to be asked then is “What right does the judiciary have to question this policy?” The answer is there is none. But there is a right, indeed an obligation, of the judiciary to question the legislative assumption that there are widespread, unfounded jury verdicts that are a detriment to economic development.

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In making the analysis of constitutionality, therefore, the Court must first apply an appropriate test, and the test to be used depends upon the right which is abridged. If the right to a jury trial is a fundamental constitutional right, then the legislation must be strictly construed … If the right is fundamental, then it must be determined whether there is a compelling interest greater than the constitutional right for the statute to survive.[2]

Finding that the right to a jury trial on damages is a fundamental constitutional right, Judge Thomas held that the cap on non-economic damages failed the strict scrutiny test and is, therefore, unconstitutional.

Judge Thomas’ ruling will most likely be appealed, forcing the Tennessee Court of Appeals and possibly the Tennessee Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s Tort Reform.