Husband Awarded Personal Injury Damages for Intentional Tort Committed by Wife; Sullivan County Chancery Court



Cox v. Cox (Tenn.App.Ct., filed December 20, 2017)

Trial Court:   After eleven years of marriage, Husband filed a complaint in the Chancery Court for Sullivan County, Tennessee, for an absolute divorce from Wife.  This was the second marriage for both parties, and no minor children were involved.  Nine months later, Husband filed an amended complaint, which included his original allegations but also added a claim for damages in tort. Husband claimed that Wife had attacked him with a knife, causing injuries. In her answer, Wife admitted that she stabbed Husband but denied that he was injured or entitled to damages. The court held a combined hearing on both the divorce and Husband’s tort claim.

The facts were that Wife entered the marital residence and stabbed Husband twice in the neck. She escaped while Husband was calling for assistance, but she was later arrested and convicted of simple assault. Paramedics treated Husband’s injuries on site because he refused to go to a hospital.

Husband suffered from a recurring infection that limited his ability to work. The symptoms first appeared several days after the stabbing. His doctor determined that he had a bacterial infection and prescribed antibiotics. After a few doctor visits, the infection apparently cleared. According to Husband, the infection reappeared several times over the ensuing months. Husband claimed that he was taking antibiotics to treat the infection at the time of trial, but he did not submit any medical bills or medical testimony as evidence at trial.

Husband testified that, as a result of his injuries, he missed one month of work and lost approximately $20,000 in income. But on cross-examination he admitted that he had never reported $20,000 in business income in previous years. He also agreed that the lost income figure was an estimate based on anticipated walk-in business. Husband eventually conceded that he did not really know how much income he had lost when the business was closed.

The trial court found Wife liable on Husband’s tort claim and awarded Husband $15,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in punitive damages.

Court of Appeals:  The Court of Appeals affirmed the award for compensatory damages and reversed the punitive damages award writing as follows:  

In a nonjury case, we will affirm a damages award “unless ‘the trial court has adopted the wrong measure of damages or . . . the evidence preponderates against the
amount of damages awarded. “There is no mathematical formula for calculating damages in a personal injury action; rather, the award of damages is left to the discretion of the trier of fact upon consideration of the particular facts of the case.”  Proof of the amount of damages must be sufficiently certain to allow the fact finder to make a “fair and reasonable assessment.”  “[U]ncertain or speculative damages are prohibited only when the existence, not the amount, of damages is uncertain.” Id.

Husband did not present any expert medical testimony at trial and did not take advantage of the rebuttable presumptions in Tennessee Code Annotated § 24-5-113. Instead, after the trial had concluded, he filed with the court a copy of an invoice and a list of payments. We conclude that his proof of medical expenses was insufficient. “A plaintiff must prove that the services rendered were ‘necessary’ to treat the injury or condition in question; and, even if the services were necessary, that the charges in question were ‘reasonable.’”.

Even so, Husband testified that, as a result of the stabbing, he “laid on the couch for a month, sick.” His sickness required him to close his business for multiple days and shorten his work hours. Husband was unable to quantify the amount of his lost income, but he was adamant that his recurring infection negatively impacted his health and his ability to work. Although Husband may have only provided scant proof of damages, we cannot say that the evidence preponderates against the court’s award of compensatory damages. See Carey v. Johnson, No. M2002-00911-COA-R3-CV, 2003 WL 21439039, at *2 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2003) (concluding that the court’s award of compensatory damages was reasonable based on the “modest” evidence presented).

A court may award punitive damages only upon finding clear and convincing evidence that “a defendant has acted either (1) intentionally, (2) fraudulently, (3) maliciously, or (4) recklessly.” Here, it is undisputed that Wife acted with the requisite intent to justify an award of punitive damages. Thus, our focus is on whether substantial evidence supports the amount of punitive damages awarded. Unfortunately, we are unable to effectively review the court’s award in the absence of findings of fact and conclusions of law on the relevant factors.

The trial court’s award of punitive damages was vacated and remanded for entry of an appropriate order after a reassessment of the amount of punitive damages in light of the Hodges factors.

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