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Tennessee Supreme Court Reviews Damages Award in Medical Negligence Case Involving Foreign Object Left in Patient’s Body

Sometimes, the legal definition and the usual definition of a word are different. Take for instance the word “damages.”

In common parlance, “damages” means physical harm to a person or thing, thus impairing its value and/or usual function. If a car sustains “damages” in a collision, we think of this as meaning that there was an impact to the car that make it less useful (a smashed headlight and a damaged radiator due to a head-on collision, for instance) or less valuable (a $50,000 SUV may be worth only $10,000 in its post-crash condition).

However, there is a separate definition in the law for the word “damages,” namely the amount of money claimed or awarded in compensation for injuries suffered in an accident. This means that, when a jury awards “damages” of a certain amount, the court then directs the party against whom the award was made to pay that amount of money to the injured individual. It is important to note that, sometimes, there are limitations on the amount of money “damages” that can be awarded to the plaintiff in an East Tennessee personal injury case. One example is discussed in the case below.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent case appealed to the state’s highest court was a woman who underwent a laparoscopic procedure in July 2005 to remove one of her kidneys after a potentially malignant mass was discovered. A certain medical device was used by the defendant surgeon during the procedure. During a gallbladder removal surgery performed by a different doctor in 2013, it was discovered that a portion of the device had been left inside the patient’s body some eight years earlier. Thereafter, the plaintiff (joined in the suit by her husband, who asserted a loss of consortium claim) filed suit in the Circuit Court for Davidson County, seeking compensation against the defendant surgeon (who performed the laparoscopic procedure in 2005), as well as several other medical providers, some of whom the plaintiffs alleged should have discovered the device inside the female plaintiff’s body during the course of their treatment of her for various conditions over the years.

The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict for the female plaintiff for $2,000,000 for pain and suffering plus $2,000,000 for loss of enjoyment of life and $500,000 to the male plaintiff for loss of consortium. Applying the statutory noneconomic damages cap codified at Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-39-102, the trial court awarded the plaintiffs a total of $1,250,000 ($750,000 to the female plaintiff and $500,000 to the male plaintiff). The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Court’s Decision in the Case

The Supreme Court of Tennessee accepted appellate review in order to decide whether Tennessee’s noneconomic damages cap applied separately to a spouse’s loss of consortium claim. Reversing the lower courts’ orders, the supreme court ruled that the language of Tennessee Code Annotated § 29-39-102 allowed both plaintiffs to recover only $750,000 in the aggregate for noneconomic damages. Thus, although the plaintiffs won their case in the trial court, the amount of money damages that they will ultimately receive will be limited under Tennessee law.

Interestingly, the supreme court deemed the plaintiffs’ arguments about the constitutionality of the statute in question to have been waived, insomuch as they were not properly presented below. It is possible that, at some future point, the court might revisit the issue of the statute’s constitutionality, which arguably could fail to pass constitutional muster with regards to the Takings Doctrine and/or other provisions.

Contact a Lawyer About an East Tennessee Personal Injury Case

If you need to speak to an experienced east Tennessee injury and wrongful death attorney about a medical malpractice claim, car wreck case, premises liability action, or other personal injury suit, please use the contact form on this website to contact the Hartsoe Law Firm. Alternatively, you can call us at 865-524-5657 to schedule a free consultation in our offices or, if you prefer, in your home.

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