In a recent decision, (Download Memorandum opinion) the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee denied the plaintiffs’ motion to declare, as unconstitutional, the tort caps enacted as part of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011. In Gummo v. Ward, 2:12-cv-00060, the plaintiffs filed a personal injury action and contended that the caps limiting non-economic damages and punitive damages, which are contained in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-102 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-39-104, violated Article I, Section 6 and Article XI, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution. Alternatively, the plaintiffs asked that the district court certify the question of the constitutionality of the cap statutes to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Under the certification procedure, a federal court can ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to decide a question of state law when it appears there is no controlling precedent, and the issue is determinative in the federal case.
District Court Judge Kevin Sharp denied the plaintiffs’ request on grounds that a determination of the constitutionality of the caps was not “ripe” for consideration “unless, and until, plaintiffs obtain a verdict in excess of one or more of those caps.” The court noted that the principle of judicial restraint requires the courts to avoid deciding the constitutional issue in advance of the necessity to do so. Relying on the same logic, the District Court denied the plaintiffs’ request to certify the question of the constitutionality of the statutory caps to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Currently, there are numerous pending cases where the plaintiffs have challenged the constitutionality of the tort reform caps. The Gummo decision appears to be the first to address a challenge. If other courts follow Judge Sharp’s decision in Gummo, constitutional challenges to the caps will not be entertained until the challenging party first obtains a verdict that exceeds the limits set forth in one or both of the caps statutes.