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How Tennessee Law Limits Victims’ Recovery of “Noneconomic” Damages

If you are injured in an automobile accident, you may still recover damages against the other driver even if a court determines you are partially to blame. Historically, Tennessee courts applied the common law rule of “contributory negligence,” which meant a plaintiff could recover nothing if he or she was even 1% responsible for the underlying accident. But in 1992, the Tennessee Supreme Court abolished contributory negligence and adopted what is known as the “modified comparative fault” rule.

Basically, modified comparative fault means any damages awarded a plaintiff is reduced in proportion to his or her share of the liability for the accident. So if you are injured in an accident, and a jury awards you $10,000 but holds you are 10% responsible, the judge will reduce your final award to $9,000. Additionally, Tennessee practices “modified” comparative fault, so the court must determine you are 49% or less at fault to recover any damages at all.

Comparative Fault vs. Caps on Noneconomic Damages

In 2011, Tennessee adopted a cap on “noneconomic” damages in personal injury lawsuits. Noneconomic damages refer to compensation for things like pain and suffering, loss of companionship, or loss of a spouse’s consortium. Tennessee’s cap limits such awards to $750,000, regardless of the jury’s verdict. (At least one Tennessee judge has ruled this cap unconstitutional, precisely because it displaces the role of the jury in deciding damages.)

But how does modified contributory negligence affect this cap? The Tennessee Court of Appeals addressed this question earlier this year. The case involved a tragic 2012 accident on Highway 64 in Memphis. An elderly couple was traveling on the highway when their SUV was struck by another vehicle from behind. According to a third driver who witnessed the accident, the second driver was speeding while attempting to change lanes.

The husband and wife in the SUV were both seriously hurt in the crash. The wife died about two months later due to her injuries. The husband’s injuries were not immediately life threatening, but he was forced to move into an assisted living facility, where he died in 2014.

The couple’s children, acting as executors of their parents’ estates, later sued the second driver. Because the driver lacked insurance, the couple’s own uninsured motorist carrier defended the lawsuit. A jury ultimately awarded approximately $325,000 in economic damages and $1.05 million in noneconomic damages. The jury further determined the deceased husband was 15% at fault for the accident.

The trial judge decided to apply the 15% comparative negligence before the statutory damages cap. In other words, he first reduced the award by 15% to $892,500 and then, applying the cap, issued a final award of $750,000. On appeal, the insurance company argued this was backwards. The court should have applied the cap first and then accounted for the plaintiff’s comparative negligence, which would make the noneconomic damages award $637,500.

The Court of Appeals rejected this argument. The court noted that other states that employ both comparative fault and statutory damage caps “have almost unanimously held” the cap should be applied first. Furthermore, the court noted Tennessee law forbids the judge from informing jurors about the cap, so the jury must make its determination as if the cap did not exist. It would therefore “undermine the autonomy of the jury and its role in the trial” to apply the cap first.

Reach Out to Our Attorneys

Cases like these illustrate the importance of working with qualified Tennessee personal injury lawyers. If you have been in a car accident and suffered serious injuries as a result, you need advice from attorneys experienced in dealing with complex legal issues like comparative negligence. Contact the attorneys at Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette today if you need to speak someone right away.

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