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Court in Yet Another State Strikes Down Tort Reform Damage Caps

Medical malpractice lawsuits provide the only effective means of holding American doctors responsible when their negligence hurts their patients. Whether the case is for personal injury or wrongful death, these suits provide a way to make the injured patients or their families as whole as possible and provide real financial incentives for doctors to practice according to the standard of care.

Unfortunately the insurance lobby and medical lobby have convinced many legislatures to severely limit medical malpractice cases and place arbitrary and harmful limits on how much plaintiffs in these cases can recover. There is no limit to the amount of damage a negligent medical professional can cause, so limiting the amount a patient can recover when he or she is injured is nonsense. Fortunately many courts like the supreme courts of Illinois and Florida have struck down medical malpractice damage caps as violating state constitutional provisions. Now a judge in Tennessee has followed suit and held that his state’s damage cap is also unconstitutional.

Tennessee Judge Holds Damage Cap Unconstitutional

The Tennessean reports that a judge in Hamilton County, Tennessee has ruled that the state’s damage cap law is unconstitutional. The law limits what are called “non-economic” damages in most civil cases to a mere $750,000. The judge is the first judge in that state to get the chance to rule on the constitutionality of the damage caps which were passed as part of a 2011 law.

He reasoned that the damage cap law improperly limited the role and authority of the jury which is established by the state constitution. Other states have used similar logic to strike down this sort of cap. The general theory is that jurors are supposed to be the finders of fact. The evidence is presented to them in the case and they are supposed to decide what the damages are in a case. When the legislature sets a cap, it usurps the authority and power of the jurors. Additionally, parties in Tennessee have a constitutional right to a jury trial, and taking away the jury’s ability to set the appropriate amount of damages infringes upon that fundamental right to a jury trial.

Legislator Urges an Appeal

While those who support patients’ rights applauded the decision, Tennessee Majority Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga is urging an appeal of the decision according to a report by the Times Free Press. When a reporter informed him about the judge’s decision he said, “You’re kidding me,” and later described himself as being “terribly disappointed” and as hoping there would be an appeal. This attitude should not be embraced. When legislatures choose to enact these damage caps they disrespect the citizens of their states. These damage caps say that they, the legislators, know better what should happen in a case than the regular residents of the state who wind up on these juries, even though the legislators have not heard or seen the evidence in the individual case.

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