On March 10, 2015, I posted a blog about a recent court ruling that the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 (Tennessee’s statutory tort reform) was unconstitutional. The ruling, made in an automobile accident case, held that the statute’s cap on non-economic damages deprived parties of their fundamental constitutional right to a jury trial. That blog post is here.
As expected, the defendant in that case appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court to decide whether the tort reform statute was constitutional.
Even though both parties wanted the Court to determine the cap’s constitutionality, the Court punted the issue on October 16, 2015. The Court held that the issue was not “ripe” for adjudication. Under the ripeness doctrine, Tennessee courts not give opinions on abstract issues of law. Rather, courts will only decide legal controversies
“when the disputed issue is real and existing, and not theoretical or abstract, and when the dispute is between parties with real and adverse interests.”
The problem in this case was the trial judge’s ruling was premature. The judge found that the cap on non-economic damages was unconstitutional before the jury got the case and awarded damages.
In declining to rule on the cap’s constitutionality, the Supreme Court explained that the jury could return a verdict in favor of the plaintiff for non-economic damages which is less than the statutory cap. In that case, the constitutionality of the cap would not be an issue for appeal. The issue would only be “ripe” if the jury awarded non-economic damages in excess of the statutory cap.
As a result, the constitutionality of Tennessee’s tort reform remains unresolved, and will have to wait until a jury awards non-economic damages in excess of the statutory cap. It may or may not happen in the case that already made its way to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
A copy of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion refusing to rule on the constitutionality of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011 is here.