When an injured plaintiff’s spouse asserts a loss of consortium claim, the noneconomic damages cap found in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 “allows both plaintiffs to recover only $750,000 in the aggregate for noneconomic damages.” In Yebuah v. Center for Urological Treatment, PLC, No. M2018-01652-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. June 2, 2021), plaintiffs filed an HCLA claim after plaintiff wife’s surgeon left a medical device in her abdominal cavity while removing her kidney, causing her pain and chronic inflammation until the device was discovered during an unrelated procedure eight years later. The jury had awarded plaintiff wife $4,000,000 in pain and suffering and loss of enjoyment of life damages, and awarded $500,000 in damages to plaintiff husband for loss of consortium. The trial court originally ruled that the damages in total would be reduced to $750,000 pursuant to the damages cap, but then amended the ruling and held that the cap should be applied to each plaintiff separately, meaning that the wife would receive $750,000 and husband would receive $500,000. The Court of Appeals affirmed this application of the damages cap.
During this appeal to the Supreme Court, the facts of the case were not at issue. The only issue here was how Tennessee’s cap on noneconomic damages should be applied when the injured plaintiff is seeking noneconomic damages and his or her spouse is also pursuing a loss of consortium claim (but not a claim for personal injuries).
In ultimately ruling that the cap applied in the aggregate to both plaintiffs’ damages combined, the Supreme Court began its analysis by addressing plaintiffs’ assertion, and the Court of Appeals’ ruling, that “the repeated phrase [in the statute] ‘each injured plaintiff’ tells us that the legislature chose to impose a ‘per plaintiff’ limit on noneconomic damages.” (internal citation omitted). Courts interpreting a statute must attempt to give words “their natural and ordinary meaning in the context in which they appear and in light of the statute’s general purpose.” (internal citation omitted). In § 29-39-102, the noneconomic damages cap statute, the Supreme Court determined that “the phrase ‘each injured plaintiff’ is not synonymous with ‘each plaintiff,” and that a distinction is thus made “between an ‘injured plaintiff’ and a spouse with a loss of consortium claim.” (internal citation omitted). The Court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that this distinction “somehow gives loss of consortium claimants less than full plaintiff status,” noting that “the consortium spouse does not ‘lose’ his or her claim…, [t]heir damages are simply limited.”
Further, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102(e) states: “All noneconomic damages awarded to each injured plaintiff, including damages for pain and suffering, as well as any claims of a spouse or children for loss of consortium or any derivative claim for noneconomic damages, shall not exceed in the aggregate a total of [$750,000]…” The Supreme Court reasoned that the interpretation pushed by plaintiffs and adopted by the Court of Appeals would “render subsection (e) superfluous.” It also stated that the words “in the aggregate” were “further evidence of the legislature’s intent” that the cap apply to the both the injured plaintiff and the loss of consortium plaintiff together.
Plaintiffs argued that applying the cap in the aggregate was “problematic because the statutory language does not set forth a manner by which to allocate reduced damages,” and that such a situation “has to potential to create marital discord between spouses over how they should share damages awarded under a single cap.” The Court explained, though, that “a loss of consortium award presupposes the existence of an intact marital relationship.” The Court also stated that “it does not matter whether this Court believes the statute to be wise or artfully written—our duty is simply to interpret the statute.” (internal citation omitted).
After pointing out other states that have interpreted damages caps in similar ways and deeming any constitutional argument waived by plaintiffs, the Court reversed the trial court and Court of Appeals and held that “Tennessee Code Annotated section 29-39-102 creates a single cap on noneconomic damages that includes those awarded to the primary injured spouse as well as those awarded to the other spouse for a derivative loss of consortium claim.” Justice Lee wrote a dissent, in which Justice Clark joined, writing that applying the cap either to the plaintiffs individually or to their combined award was unconstitutional. Justice Lee wrote:
[T]he jury did its job by returning a verdict that fairly compensated [plaintiffs] for their noneconomic loss. By requiring the trial court to set aside an arbitrary amount of the jury’s verdict, the statutory cap violates [plaintiffs’] constitutional right to a trial by jury. Thus, whether the statutory cap on noneconomic damages is applied to individual or combined verdicts, the cap remains unconstitutional.
This is an important case, as it is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on how the noneconomic damages cap should be applied when a derivative loss of consortium claim is asserted. This holding will result in noneconomic damages awards being subject to even greater reduction than before, as the cap is to be applied to the aggregate damages rather than to each plaintiff individually.
Note, however, that if each spouse has a personal injury claim, each spouse is entitled to a non-economic damages award of up to $750,000 (unless that cap is lifted for a reason set forth in the statute). Thus, assume Husband and Wife are injured in the same motor vehicle wreck. Each has two broken legs and thus each has a personal injury claim. Each also has a loss of consortium claim. Each can collect up to $750,000 in non-economic damages. Oddly, Husband’s loss of consortium damages are capped within Wife’s injury award, and Wife’s loss of consortium damages are capped within Husband’s injury award, but each is potentially entitled to the full $750,000 provided under the statute.
NOTE: This opinion was released five months after oral arguments in this case.