Defendant’s Interpretation of Statutory Damages Cap Upheld on Appeal

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville, June 30, 2020

A jury trial was conducted on behalf of the plaintiff, Lois Irene Davis, who sued multiple companies alleging her husband, James William Davis (the decedent), was exposed to asbestos-containing materials at his workplace which caused him to develop mesothelioma and die. Prior to the start of trial, the plaintiff resolved her claims against all defendants except Ameron International Corporation.

At the end of trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the paintiff, finding total damages of $2,071,216.21, which included noneconomic damages of $1,950,000. The jury apportioned liability to the decedent at 2 percent and Ameron at 13 percent. The remaining 85 percent of fault was allocated among eight other entities that had been named as defendants, but settled before trial.

The plaintiff’s counsel prepared a proposed judgment against Ameron for $269,258.11, which was 13 percent of the total damages found by the jury. Ameron objected to the proposed judgment. While Ameron agreed that it was liable for 13 percent of the economic damages found by the jury, it argued that the statutory cap applied to the noneconomic damages since after reducing the noneconomic award by the decedent’s percentage of liability the noneconomic damages still exceeded the $750,000 statutory cap.  Mrs. Davis contended that the statutory cap did not apply in this instance “[b]ecause the total amount of damages apportioned to Ameron, the only remaining defendant, was less than $750,000.”

The trial court agreed with Ameron. The court ordered that Mrs. Davis would recover from Ameron $15,758.11 in economic damages and $99,489.80 in non-economic damages for a total judgment of $115,247.91. Mrs. Davis appealed, arguing that the statutory damages cap was inapplicable.

“Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-39-102 sets a cap on the noneconomic damages that each injured plaintiff may recover in a civil tort action. The pertinent language of the statute states:

(a) In a civil action, each injured plaintiff may be awarded:

(1) Compensation for economic damages suffered by each injured plaintiff; and

(2) Compensation for any noneconomic damages suffered by each injured plaintiff not to exceed seven hundred fifty thousand dollars ($750,000) for all injuries and occurrences that were or could have been asserted, regardless of whether the action is based on a single act or omission or a series of acts or omissions that allegedly caused the injuries or death.

(b) If multiple defendants are found liable under the principle of comparative fault, the amount of all noneconomic damages, not to exceed seven hundred fifty thousand dollars ($750,000) for each injured plaintiff, shall be apportioned among the defendants based upon the percentage of fault for each defendant, so long as the plaintiff’s comparative fault (or in a wrongful death action, the fault of the decedent) is not equal to or greater than fifty percent (50%), in which case recovery for any damages is barred.”

The plaintiff argued that the cap does not apply here since multiple defendants were not found liable under the principle of comparative fault. In the plaintiff’s view at the time of trial, only one defendant remained, therefore, subsection (b) of the statute is inapplicable to cases in which there is only one defendant. The court did not agree.

In affirming the trial court’s decision, the court explained “that the trial court should first reduce the jury’s award of noneconomic damages by the percentage of plaintiff’s fault if less than 50 percent. If the award of noneconomic damages adjusted for the plaintiff’s fault still exceeds the statutory cap, the court should reduce the award to the cap amount and apportion the amount among the persons or entities found at fault (other than the plaintiff) based upon the percentage of fault for each.”

Here, the trial court correctly reduced the noneconomic damages adjusted for Decedent’s fault to the statutory cap amount before apportioning the damages among the entities found at fault for the injuries. Consistent with the doctrine of comparative fault, the court then appropriately apportioned the statutory cap amount among Ameron and the nonparties that caused or contributed to the injuries.