The Supreme Court of Tennessee, in its opinion filed on February 26, 2020, held “that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 does not violate the right to trial by jury, the doctrine of separation of powers, or the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee Constitution.”
The Tennessee General Assembly enacted the statutory cap on noneconomic damages as part of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011. See 2011 Tenn. Pub. Acts, ch. 510, §§ 1, 10. Specifically, Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102(a)(2) provides that, in a civil action, awards may include “[c]ompensation 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.”
The cap is increased to $1,000,000 for certain “catastrophic loss or injury.” Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 29-39-102(c)-(d). The statute also exempts certain kinds of cases from the cap, such as those in which the defendant had a specific intent to inflict serious physical injury, the defendant was intoxicated, or the defendant committed a felony in causing the injury. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102(h). The statute was enacted to apply prospectively to actions that accrue on or after October 1, 2011. See 2011 Tenn. Pub. Acts, ch. 510, § 24.
Cap Does Not Violate Right To Jury Trial
The Supreme Court of Tennessee stated that the right to a jury trial mandates that all contested factual issues be decided by an unbiased and impartial jury. “However, the right to a jury trial under the Tennessee Constitution does not entitle a plaintiff to any particular cause of action or any particular remedy. Instead, what causes of action a plaintiff may bring, or what remedies a plaintiff may seek, are matters of law subject to determination by the legislature.”
The Supreme Court of Tennessee explained: “Under Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102(g), the statutory cap on noneconomic damages is not disclosed to the jury, but is instead applied by the trial court to any award of noneconomic damages. Thus, a jury determines, as a question of fact, the amount of any noneconomic damages sustained by a plaintiff. The trial judge then applies, as a matter of law determined by the legislature, the statutory cap on noneconomic damages in entering the final judgment. This application of law by the trial judge does not violate the plaintiff’s right to have a jury determine the underlying facts of the case … We conclude that the right to trial by jury under the Tennessee Constitution is satisfied when an unbiased and impartial jury makes a factual determination regarding the amount of noneconomic damages, if any, sustained by the plaintiff. That right is not violated when a judge then applies, as a matter of law, the statutory cap on noneconomic damages. Thus, we hold that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 does not violate the right to trial by jury under the Tennessee Constitution.”
Cap On Noneconomic Damages Does Not Violate The Separation Of Powers Doctrine
Article II, section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that “[t]he powers of the Government shall be divided into three distinct departments: the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial.” Section 2 of the same Article provides that “[n]o person or persons belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others, except in the cases herein directed or permitted.” “In general, the ‘legislative power’ is the authority to make, order, and repeal law; the ‘executive power’ is the authority to administer and enforce the law; and the ‘judicial power’ is the authority to interpret and apply law.”
The Supreme Court of Tennessee stated that the Tennessee General Assembly oversteps constitutional boundaries in violation of the separation of powers when it exercises its legislative power in a way that directly contradicts existing procedural rules of the courts. However, the separation of powers doctrine in Tennessee’s Constitution does not prevent the Generally Assembly from enacting substantive law.
The Supreme Court of Tennessee held: “the statutory cap on noneconomic damages is a substantive change in the law that was within the General Assembly’s legislative authority to enact. The statutory cap does not interfere with the judicial power of the courts to interpret and apply law. To the contrary, courts exercise their judicial authority, and fulfill their constitutional responsibilities, by applying the statutory cap on noneconomic damages to the cases before them. Thus, we hold that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages in Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 does not violate the separation of powers doctrine under the Tennessee Constitution.”
Cap On Noneconomic Damages Does Not Violate The Equal Protection Clause By Discriminating Disproportionately Against Women
The right to equal protection is guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Equal protection also is guaranteed by Article I, section 8, and Article XI, section 8, of the Tennessee Constitution.
The Supreme Court of Tennessee held: “without evidence of discriminatory purpose, disparate impact alone does not violate the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee Constitution. Therefore, with no allegation or evidence that the General Assembly acted with the purpose of discriminating against women in enacting the statutory cap on noneconomic damages, we hold that Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 does not violate the Tennessee Constitution by discriminating disproportionately against women.”
Source Jodi McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC, No. M2019-00511-SC-R23-CV.
A dissenting opinion stated, in part: “By usurping the jury’s role in awarding noneconomic damages, the General Assembly has, in effect, amended Article I, section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution to dilute the right to trial by jury so it is no longer inviolate. But the General Assembly may only propose a constitutional amendment; it is up to the voters to amend the Constitution by ratification.”
A second dissenting opinion stated, in part: “I would hold that Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102(e) (2012) violates article I, section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution by usurping the jury’s essential and constitutionally protected fact-finding function … Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102(e) constitutes far more than a slight deviation from the established mode and function of the jury. It amounts to a legislative usurpation of the jury’s constitutionally protected fact-finding function. As such, it should be “instantly put down” as a violation of article I, section 6.”
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