Tort Reform Bill Passes First Committee Vote

The latest version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tort reform bill advanced in the House Wednesday with an amendment that sets a cap on the amount of non-economic damages at $1 million in the worst cases.

The cap on non-economic damages had originally been set at $750,000 for all cases and still contains that base figure. But the administration then suggested language that would allow for caps of up to $1.25 million in cases that were “catastrophic” in nature, such as conditions leaving a victim paralyzed in both arms and both legs. But the version adopted by the subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday set the cap of $1 million in those more serious cases.

The bill now goes to the full House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The bill was passed on a voice vote, and there was little discussion, with the exception of Rep. Janis Sontany, D-Nashville, and Rep. Eddie Bass, D-Prospect, questioning why the subcommittee should act on such short notice upon introduction of the amendment.

No witnesses were brought in on Wednesday to speak to the legislation, which has pitted a Republican-controlled Legislature against trial lawyers.

Well-known actor and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, who has led the lobbying effort for the Tennessee Association of Justice, a trial lawyers’ group, was at Legislative Plaza on Wednesday but did not appear during the hearing and did not appear to be in the room when the vote was taken. He has appeared before lawmakers previously on the issue.

Herbert Slatery, legal counsel to the governor, said he had met with Thompson Wednesday.

“He was very cordial,” Slatery said. “His group has actually been very cordial. A lot of groups have.”

Haslam, speaking to reporters before the vote Wednesday, said there have been some misconceptions about the legislation.

“Some of the examples that have been given out there with the bill that we’ve proposed aren’t right,” Haslam said. “If there has been intentional misconduct, that isn’t covered by this. The caps are off in those cases.

“Unfortunately, I think the side that’s been presented by some folks who are against this legislation uses some examples that aren’t the case of what we’re covering.”

The legislation says the limits on the amount of punitive damages do not apply if “the defendant had a specific intent to inflict serious physical injury, and the defendant’s intentional conduct did, in fact, injure the plaintiff.”

It was unclear exactly where Haslam’s point applied in examples that have been cited, but there was some speculation involving a case in which a Nashville girl died after going in for a routine tonsillectomy where there was alleged to have been an intentional cover-up on what had occurred. That case resulted in a settlement.

Haslam has stated that tort reform will help create a climate for job recruitment, but he was asked Wednesday if it would be more appropriate to offer the bill simply as a way just to keep doctors from leaving the state or preventing lawyers seeking high awards from coming in.

“When Texas had tort reform, you did see an increase in the number of MDs who were there,” Haslam said. “And if you talk to physicians — which we are going to be in short supply of in Tennessee — that is a factor. So that’s definitely one of the pieces. But it is broader than that. It is all about creating a predictable playing field for businesses.”

The bill’s language on catastrophic effects includes spinal cord injury resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia; amputation of two hands, two feet or one of each; third-degree burns over 40 percent or more of the body as a whole or third-degree burns up to 40 percent or more of the face; or wrongful death of a parent leaving a surviving minor child or children for whom the deceased parent had lawful rights of custody or visitation.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, D-Chattanooga, carries the bill in the House as the majority leader, and he spoke to the horsetrading that has gone into the bill.

“A lot of parties have come to the table to work on a good bill for not just businesses but for individuals in Tennessee,” McCormick said.

“The governor is very open-minded and didn’t necessarily want to pass every single word that he came up with in the beginning. They wanted to get input from all the various parties and come up with the best legislation.”

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said of the $1 million figure, “I think it’s something that the sponsors of the bill, our leadership and the governor’s staff felt comfortable with, and I think there was agreement that that was appropriate and indicated true reform.”

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a free-market think tank, issued a release Wednesday on a poll it commissioned showing Tennesseans supporting efforts at tort reform. The survey said 58 percent of Tennesseans in the poll favor limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.