Attorney’s Fees Cannot Be Awarded as Punitive Damages Under Tennessee Law When Not Provided For in Contract or Statute

Posted on Sep 7 2014 9:46PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

A new Tennessee Court of Appeals decision, Samuel Bridgefourth, Jr. v. Santander Consumer USA, Inc., No. W2013-02468-COA-R3-CV, 2014 WL 3563470 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2014), dealt with a situation involving repossession of the plaintiff’s car by a finance company.  The plaintiff then paid the balance due on the loan.  He then received the title in the mail but never received the vehicle back.  As a result, the plaintiff sued the defendant Santander Consumer USA, Inc. alleging breach of contract, conversion, trespass to chattels, fraud, misrepresentations and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. 


Ultimately, the case went to trial.  The trial court awarded Mr. Bridgefourth $6,000.00 in compensatory damages for conversion of the car and “special damages in the amount of $13,348.00 for attorney’s fees necessary to compensate Plaintiff for his losses as a result of Defendant’s actions.”  The plaintiff then asked the court to clarify its order and the trial court changed the $13,348.00 award from “special damages” to “punitive damages”.  As a result, the defendant Santander appealed, arguing that it was not appropriate to award attorneys’ fees in this case.


The Tennessee Court of Appeals noted the rule in Tennessee is that “litigants must pay their own attorney’s fees unless there is a statute or contractual provision providing otherwise.”  Bridgefourth at 2 (citing State v. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., 18 S.W.3.d 186, 194 (Tenn. 2000)).  The Tennessee Court of Appeals next addressed whether the trial court could award attorney’s fees as “punitive damages” as was done in this case.  The Court noted:


The purpose of punitive damages is not to compensate the plaintiff but to punish the wrongdoer and to deter others from committing similar wrongs in the future. Attorney's fees are not punitive in nature.  Attorney's fees are meant to be compensatory, and it is therefore inappropriate to award attorneys' fees as punitive damages. (citations omitted)


Bridgefourth at 1.  As a result, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the trial court on the granting of attorney’s fees.  It was simply not appropriate to award attorney’s fees in this case. 


This case shows attorney’s fees cannot be awarded unless there is a specific statutory or contractual provision providing for attorney’s fees.  The fact a trial court calls the award of attorney’s fees “punitive damages” does not change this rule.  Counsel for the defendant Santander is quoted as saying to the appellate court in oral argument that “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.  And you can call attorney’s fees punitive damages, but they are still attorney’s fees.” Bridgefourth at Footnote No. 1.  This is a witty statement about the attempt of the trial court to award attorney’s fees as “punitive damages”.


Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Defense Litigation blog.

TAGS: Damages, Breach of Contract, Attorney Fees, Punitive Damages
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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