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The Legal Fight Over Punitive Damages in Tennessee Courts


Although movies and TV portray punitive damages as being easy to get, and given out by juries at will, in fact, victims seeking to recover punitive damages have a high bar to prove they are entitled to these damages.

Why Do People Care About Punitive Damages?

Punitive damages are so controversial because unlike other damages, which seek to compensate a victim for a loss, whether that loss be economic or emotional, punitive damages have nothing to do with the victim—they have to do with correcting a wrongdoer—that is, “punishing” a defendant for socially unacceptable behavior. As such, many punitive damage awards nationally seem to be very high.

Getting Punitive Damages

To get punitive damages, a victim has to show they are entitled to them by a standard known as clear and convincing evidence. Whereas normally, a victim shows entitlement to damages by a preponderance of the evidence—essentially, 51% of the evidence—clear and convincing is a much higher standard of proof for a victim to meet.

Getting punitive damages requires more than just a showing of negligence. A victim must show that a defendant acted intentionally, maliciously or recklessly. Again, this is a higher standard than the ordinary negligence case.

Dispute Over the Cap on Punitive Damages

At one point, there was a cap on the amount of punitive damages that a victim could recover. Punitive damages couldn’t exceed twice the non-punitive damages, or $500,000, whichever is higher. The jury wouldn’t know about this cap—they could assign millions in punitive damages if they so choose—but after the trial, the award would be reduced to reflect the statutory maximum.

But in 2019, a 6th Circuit federal court struck down that cap as being unconstitutional. The Court found that punitive damages are issues that a jury must decide—not a legislature. This was long the law in North Carolina, and Tennessee’s laws are heavily influenced by North Carolina laws.

The problem (or the confusion) is that the 6th circuit is a federal court—not a state court. That means that there is still room for a Tennessee state court to decide differently and hold that the punitive damage limits are constitutional.

And, because the federal court’s ruling isn’t technically binding on Tennessee state courts, the ruling doesn’t have to be followed by state courts, meaning that the maximum cap on punitive damages remains in effect in Tennessee.

State Courts May Uphold Limits

Tennessee’s Supreme Court recently held that a cap on noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering was allowable and legal. In that decision, the Court seemed to indicate that, given the chance, it would also find the cap on punitive damages legal. However, that exact question was not in front of, and thus not ruled on by the court.

Call the Knoxville personal injury attorneys at Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, can help you obtain damages for any injury or accident that you were involved in. Contract us to help you with your injury case.


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