The big news lately within the Tennessee legal community has been Gov. Bill Haslam’s signing of a controversial bill into law. House Bill 2008, or the “Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011,” amends the Tennessee Code in ways that the Governor says helps protect the small businesses of Tennessee.
But, many citizens and personal injury lawyers feel otherwise. Does this bill aid business to the detriment of the people?
Firstly, what defines “civil justice?” There are two kinds of cases that can be brought into the court system — criminal cases, in which the defendant is accused of breaking state or federal law, and civil cases, in which the defendant is accused of causing physical and emotional injury to the victim (or plaintiff). A civil case can be related to a criminal case, but that’s not important to this bill. Civil justice is the specialty of personal injury lawyers. We represent people who have been injured by a person or corporation.
The controversial part of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act, to put it simply, sets limits on the amount of monetary damages the jury is allowed to award the plaintiff in a civil lawsuit. The law is a reaction to “frivolous” lawsuits that, Gov. Haslam says, put small, local businesses at risk. You know the kind — when your neighbor gets a paper cut from the Chattanooga Times Free Press and tries to sue the Chattanooga Publishing Company for $5 billion. (By the way, “frivolous” lawsuits really are urban myth more than reality.) The limits set by the new law are as follows:
- Damages for pain and suffering are limited to $750,000. But, pain and suffering awards can be as high as $1 million if the plaintiff suffered a serious injury, such as damage to the spinal cord or a severe burn, or if there has been a wrongful death to a parent of a minor.
- Punitive damages are limited to $500,000 or twice the amount of the compensatory damage award (whichever is greater).
Compensatory damages are also known as actual damages. They compensate the victim for the actual amount of any financial loss caused by the defendant. Punitive damages are the punishment part of a lawsuit award. When a jury awards the plaintiff punitive damages, they are really making a statement to the defendant. Punitive damages are meant as a deterrent for bad or dangerous behavior, in the hope that the defendant (and others) will be motivated to alter that behavior.
So, how do you feel about the new law? Let’s say your sister, the mother of three young children, dies because of a surgery mistake at a hospital in Tennessee. There is an additional $25,000 is medical costs because of the accident and then $10,000 more in unexpected funeral costs after her death. You are the mother’s only living family member and now you are the sole caretaker of her three children. You decide to file a malpractice lawsuit. If you win, the best case scenario sees the hospital paying out compensatory damages of $35,000 (paying you back what you already spent), punitive damages of $500,000 and a wrongful death settlement of $1 million. That’s a combined settlement total of $1.5 million. Is that enough?