Stabbing Leads to Spousal Tort Award in Blountville, Tennessee Divorce: Cox v. Cox

Facts: Husband and Wife divorced after 11 years of marriage.

Tennessee spousal tortWhile the divorce was pending, Husband claimed that Wife attacked him with a knife, causing injuries. Wife admitted she stabbed Husband twice in the neck (!!!) but denied that he was injured or entitled to damages. Paramedics treated Husband’s injuries on site because he refused to go to a hospital.

Wife was convicted of simple assault.

At trial, Husband submitted no medical bills or medical testimony as evidence. He testified he missed one month of work and lost approximately $20,000 in income. On cross-examination, however, he admitted that he had never reported as much as $20,000 in business income in previous years.

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

Wife appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court in part and reversed in part.

In a nonjury case, Tennessee appellate courts will affirm a damages award unless the trial court adopted the wrong measure of damages or the evidence preponderates against the amount of damages awarded.

Proof of the amount of damages must be sufficiently certain to allow the court to make a fair and reasonable assessment. Uncertain or speculative damages are prohibited only when the existence, not the amount, of damages is uncertain.

An injured party must prove that medical expenses he or she is seeking to recover are necessary and reasonable. In all but the most obvious and routine cases, the injured party must present competent expert testimony to meet this burden of proof. A physician familiar with the extent and nature of the medical treatment a party has received may give an opinion about the necessity of another physician’s services and the reasonableness of the charges.

Referencing the deferential standard of review, the Court found there was enough proof to sustain the trial court’s award:

Husband did not present any expert medical testimony at trial . . . .

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.

A court may only award punitive damages upon finding clear and convincing evidence that a defendant acted intentionally, fraudulently, maliciously, or recklessly. In determining the amount of punitive damages, courts must consider these factors:

  • The defendant’s financial affairs, financial condition, and net worth;
  • The nature and reprehensibility of defendant’s wrongdoing, for example:
    • The impact of defendant’s conduct on the plaintiff, or the relationship of defendant to plaintiff;
    • The defendant’s awareness of the amount of harm being caused and defendant’s motivation in causing the harm;
  • The duration of defendant’s misconduct and whether defendant attempted to conceal the conduct;
  • The expense plaintiff has borne in the attempt to recover the losses;
  • Whether defendant profited from the activity, and if defendant did profit, whether the punitive award should be in excess of the profit in order to deter similar future behavior;
  • Whether, and the extent to which, defendant has been subjected to previous punitive damage awards based upon the same wrongful act;
  • Whether, once the misconduct became known to defendant, defendant took remedial action or attempted to make amends by offering a prompt and fair settlement for actual harm caused; and
  • Any other circumstances shown by the evidence that bear on determining the proper amount of the punitive award.

Because the trial court addressed none of these factors, its award of punitive damages was reversed and remanded for reassessment in light of these factors.

Thus, the award of compensatory damages was affirmed and the award of punitive damages was vacated and remanded.

Cox v. Cox (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, December 20, 2017).

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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