Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Statutory Cap On Noneconomic Damages Limits Recovery To $750,000 In The Aggregate

The Tennessee Supreme Court has determined that the Tennessee statute that limits noneconomic damages in a personal injury action to $750,000 is a single cap for all claims asserted in the personal injury action. The cap, therefore, does not apply separately to a spouse's loss of consortium claim.

This healthcare liability action was brought by Cynthia Yebuah and her husband, Eric Yebuah, against several of Mrs. Yebuah’s healthcare providers and their employers. A portion of a Gelport device was unintentionally left inside Mrs. Yebuah’s abdomen during kidney surgery. The Gelport device remained inside Mrs. Yebuah’s body for eight years until it was discovered during an unrelated gallbladder surgery. Mrs. Yebuah subsequently filed suit seeking only noneconomic damages against certain physicians and their employers. Her husband likewise sought recovery for noneconomic damages in the form of loss of consortium.  All defendants except the Center for Urological Treatment (“Center”) were eventually dismissed. The jury returned a verdict against the Center and awarded Mrs. Yebuah $4,000,000 for pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life. The jury also awarded Mr. Yebuah $500,000 for loss of consortium.

The trial court determined that the statutory cap of $750,000 on noneconomic damages applied in this case; however, the court applied the cap separately to each plaintiff. The trial court entered a judgment of $750,000 in favor of Mrs. Yebuah and $500,000 in favor of Mr. Yebuah – for a total of $1,250,000 in noneconomic damages.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to apply the statutory cap separately to each plaintiff. The Supreme Court granted permission to appeal to address whether the statutory cap on noneconomic damages applies separately to a spouse’s loss of consortium claim.

In an opinion released today, the majority of the Supreme Court held the language of Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 allows both plaintiffs to recover only $750,000 in the aggregate for noneconomic damages. The Court also determined that any argument by Mrs. and Mr. Yebuah that the statutory cap on noneconomic damages is unconstitutional has been resolved by the Court’s holding in McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC. To that end, the Supreme Court reversed the holding of the Court of Appeals and trial court.

Justice Sharon G. Lee, joined by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, dissented, concluding that the jury did its job by returning a verdict that fairly compensated Mr. and Mrs. Yebuah for their noneconomic losses. The cap on noneconomic damages required the trial court to set aside an arbitrary amount of the jury’s verdict, thus violating the Yebuahs’ constitutional right to trial by jury. According to the dissenting justices, the cap on noneconomic damages, however it is applied, is unconstitutional as explained in their dissenting opinions in McClay v. Airport Management Services, LLC.

To read the opinion in Cynthia E. Yebuah et.al., v. Center for Urological Treatment, PLC, authored by Justice Roger A. Page, and Justice Lee’s separate dissenting opinion, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.