2011-12 Damage Awards in Personal Injury and Wrongful Death Cases in Tennessee

As I mentioned in my February 17, 2013 post about Tennessee personal injury and Tennessee wrongful death court filings, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Court has released statistics about the Tennessee’s justice system. Among the data produced is the amount of money awarded in tort trials for the year ended 2011-12. 

The total amount of damages awarded by judges and juries in all personal injury and wrongful death trials in the state in the year ended June 30, 2012 was $128,312,921.

Damages of $1 to $99,999 were awarded in 158 of the 204 cases tried to judges in juries in year in which damages were actually awarded.  (There were 520 trials in all – no damages were awarded in 316 of them.  Damages of $100,000 to $999,999 were awarded in just 29 cases.   Damages of $1,000,000 and more were awarded in 17 cases.

The total damages awarded figure is misleading in several ways.  First of all, it is the sum total of all money awarded by judges and juries, and does not take into account jury awarded that are reduced by the trial court.  Under Tennessee law, judges have the power to reduce the amount of a jury award.  (Judges also have the power to increase a jury award, but it is rarely exercised.)  The largest verdict in the state during the period was $20,000,000, and it was substantially reduced by the trial judge.

Second, the statistics do not take into account verdicts that are reduced or reversed by an appeal.

Third, the statistics do not take into account verdicts that are awarded against absent parties or will be extremely difficult to collect.  For example, almost twenty years ago I helped a family obtain a verdict of $15,000,000 for the death of their daughter who was murdered by three young men.  That murderers were in prison, and the verdict will be difficult to collect.  (One man killed himself in prison.  One man is still in prison.  The third murderer just got out of prison and collection proceedings have begun.)  True, we obtained  a $15,000,000 verdict.  But it can hardly be counted the same as a $15,000,000 verdict in a contested trial against someone who has the ability to pay it (and therefore who would actively defend the case.)

Fourth, the statistics do not take into account verdicts against those who have settled.  Under our law, fault can be assessed against non-parties to the lawsuit.  The jury can apportion fault (and therefore damages) to people who are not even in the courtroom.  This decision by the jury has no financial impact on the person to whom fault is assigned.

Fifth, the statistics do not take into account post-trial settlements.  

Therefore, the statistics tell us exactly what they purport to tell us:  the gross amount of damages awarded in tort trials in Tennessee in a one year period, broken down into three broad categories.  Nothing less.  And certainly nothing more.