The Tennessee Civil Justice Act: Justice for Victims after Tort Reform?

On January 18, 2002, six-year-old Billy Meals was riding along in the back of his father’s car, seatbelt on, when a drunk driver crossed a line and hit the Mealses’ car head on.  Billy was paralyzed from the waist down: his father and grandfather, both of whom were in the car, didn’t survive the crash.  The family sued, and a jury awarded Billy’s family 43.8 million dollars for their losses — 6.5 million of which was placed on the shoulders of the Ford Motor Company, whose faulty seatbelts may have kept Billy alive, but couldn’t keep him walking.

Ford, of course, appealed — and won.  Their share was reduced to 1.93 million.

Then the Mealses appealed, of course — and they won.  On September 6, 2013, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the first appellate decision and reinstated Billy Meals’ original award, holding that is was within an appropriate range of damages.

It’s a tragic story, and no one wants Billy Meals, now 14, to suffer any more than he already has.  But this case is about more than just a large verdict: it’s in direct opposition to the Tennessee Civil Justice Act (TCJA) Governor Bill Haslam signed into law in 2011.  The Act places a limit on non-economic and punitive damages that a plaintiff can recover in a civil suit.  If today’s standards had applied, Billy Meals would technically only be entitled to 1 million dollars for all non-economic damages, past, present and future.

What this means for Tennessee victims moving forward

Because the car accident that took Billy’s ability to walk (and the lives of his father and grandfather) happened in 2002, 9 years before the law was enacted, his case doesn’t fall under the boundaries of the TCJA.  But for injury victims whose accidents and injuries occurred in the last two years, or will take place in the future, the cap could have long-lasting implications — most of which will not be helpful.  As the law applies only to punitive and non-economic damages, plaintiffs should still be able to recover their medical bills, their lost wages (including potential future lost wages) and — in Billy’s family’s case, for example — any burial costs. 

But how does one put a monetary cap on the ability to walk?  To speak with your father?  To deal with the day-in, day-out reminder of the life you once had — or in Billy’s case, the life you could have had?  Would 1 million dollars really compensate(for his or her whole life) the next-six-year old who is made a paraplegic like Billy Meals was?


When your family is hurt, contact the family who cares. Call Massengill, Caldwell & Coughlin today at 423.212.5042 to schedule your free initial consultation, or contact us online.