Tangled up in Tort Reform

Photo by Jim Martin

A relatively unknown Tennessee law has a stranglehold on citizens facing some of their darkest days.

For many years, Tennessee courts did not put a limit on compensation awarded to those seeking non-economic damages from offending parties or the insurance companies that represent them in the event of injury or death from negligence, medical malpractice, or other such cases. With the passing of tort reform in 2011, a cap was introduced that limits payouts to those seeking monetary relief. Bruce Fox sat down with Cityview to discuss how detrimental this law is to Tennesseans and the possibility of overturning it.

Imagine that you are struck by a delivery truck while the driver of that truck was sending a text message. Because of that driver’s negligence, you are horribly injured. When you finally have your day in court, a jury of your peers finds that you are entitled to $5 million in compensation for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, et cetera. As they leave the courthouse and get into their cars, they feel that they’ve rendered a fair verdict. What they don’t know is that you will actually be receiving far less.

Because of tort reform, the judge will then inform both parties in the court room that it is his duty under the law to reduce that award from $5 million to $750,000, the maximum amount of compensation to which you are entitled. In the blink of an eye, your life is forever changed.

How does something like this happen? “Number one, the public wasn’t aware of it,” Bruce explains. “Number two … that can’t-happen-to-me attitude that we all have.”

In addition, many times lawmakers are not aware of or don’t understand the implications of what they’re actually placing into law. This, coupled with the influence of lobbyists, has consequences that come at the detriment of the public at large.

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, there is very little recourse for most citizens. However, there is the possibility that the Tennessee Supreme Court will find the law unconstitutional. The Seventh Amendment of the Bill of Rights protects your right to a trial by jury, and also protects the findings of that jury. Tort reform flies in the face of this by stripping the jury of its weight in these types of civil cases. In the end, the only winners are the insurance companies who have managed to weasel their way out of paying their fair share.

Luckily, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. On September 4 of this year, the Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of McClay v. Airport Management Services Inc. “If the Supreme Court rules that the legislation that was passed is unconstitutional and that the law of this state means you cannot cap damages for non-economic loss, then that would be the law of the land,” says Bruce.

As the fate of tort reform is determined in the coming months, let this be a lesson in the importance of an informed citizenry. May we be forever vigilant against those who have no investment in our well-being. Instead, let us actively voice our concerns to our representatives. It’s hard to represent a silent constituency.


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