Gov. Bill Haslam effectively cleaned his plate of his first legislative package as governor Thursday, signing a tort reform bill that has been touted as a way to create a better climate for jobs in Tennessee.
Haslam signed the bill in a formal setting at the Capitol, making it a clean sweep on his personal legislative agenda. Haslam had previously signed three education reform bills, one at the Capitol on teacher tenure changes, one in Memphis on charter schools Wednesday and one in Murfreesboro last week on his plan to apply Hope scholarships toward classes taken in summer school.
Haslam offered no jobs package of legislation per se, stating from the start that he did not think the state could legislate new jobs — a point with which Democrats took great issue. But the closest measure to a jobs bill was Haslam’s tort reform effort, which met forceful opposition, foremost among trial lawyers who employed lawyer/actor Fred Thompson to do their high-profile lobbying on the issue.
The bill passed 21-12 in the Senate and 72-24 in the House in a Legislature with a heavy Republican majority in each chamber. The Legislature adjourned May 21, but a strong contingent of key Republican lawmakers joined the governor for the signing ceremony on Thursday.
“This was obviously one of our key pieces of legislation,” Haslam told reporters after the ceremony. “I honestly think this will help encourage a better business environment.
“I think we did it in a way that protects victims’ rights but also sets up a predictable landscape for business, and that was our goal all along.”
One interest group, the free-market Tennessee Center for Policy Research, had estimated 30,000 jobs a year could be created with tort reform, translating into 577 jobs a week. Throughout the legislative session, however, it became difficult to get lawmakers or other proponents to put a number on potential job creation. Haslam refused to do so on Thursday. But Haslam said that growth would be genuine.
“I’ve seen supporters of this had a number that they thought it would create. I don’t know how you quantify it. But I do think it’s real,” Haslam said.
The law, formally the “Tennessee Civil Justice Act,” places a cap of $750,000 on non-economic damages in civil cases, although it creates exceptions in cases that involve intentional misconduct, destruction of records or activity under the influence of drugs and alcohol. That cap is extended to $1 million in catastrophic cases, which the law specifies as paraplegia, quadriplegia, amputation, substantial burns or the wrongful death of a parent leaving minor children.
The law places a cap on punitive damages at two times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.
Opponents of the bill had insisted that such decisions should be left in the hands of juries. People who had settled cases that involved severe personal suffering had been brought in to legislative hearings to help make the case against the bill. Thompson in particular had given stirring testimony about the need to leave such decisions in the hands of jurors.
Haslam made special mention Thursday of his legal counsel, Herbert Slatery, and his work on the matter.
“People on both sides of the issue were giving him a strong piece of their mind,” Haslam said of Slatery. “But he kept coming back to ‘What’s the right thing to do?'”
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said Thursday he had seen seven years as a legislator waiting for the day to come when such a bill would be signed. Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said it was more like 10.
“Ten years is the length of time we’ve toiled in this vineyard to bring true tort reform to the state of Tennessee,” Norris said. “It wasn’t until Governor Haslam came along with his vision and his focus that we were able to get it across the line.”
The law is particularly welcome in the medical profession.
“For the doctors in the state, this has been a long time coming,” said Don Alexander, CEO of the Tennessee Medical Association. “They need stability in their practices, when the largest expense is their professional liability. Now they know how to at least gauge and know exactly what to set aside to pay. They can limit their coverage a little bit more.
“This is going to make an environment in Tennnessee much more attractive to doctors to come to Tennessee.”
Alexander said that previously doctors who were trained in the state would leave the state because of a liability environment that has been “kind of toxic.”
With tort reform and education legislation completed, Haslam is likely to draw more attention now to his efforts to combat unemployment more directly.
Now that steps have been made ostensibly to create a better climate for business, the issue of job growth will get more scrutiny under the first-year governor. Haslam has made job growth in the state his top priority and has said his legislative agenda was designed for that purpose. Nevertheless, further discussion of education reforms is also expected, including issues of school calendars and the length of school days.