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Haslam’s Tort Reform Plan Advances

The Senate Judiciary Committee kept Gov. Bill Haslam’s tort reform bill on track Tuesday, passing the controversial bill 6-3 along party lines.

The committee considered several amendments and adopted those that were considered friendly by Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, the bill’s sponsor. Norris is carrying the bill for the administration as majority leader in the Senate.

While committee members discussed the amendments, no testimony was taken from people in the audience who had interest in the legislation, unlike the previous week when dramatic testimony included remarks by former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who is lobbying for trial lawyers against the bill.

The amendments approved Tuesday did little to change the thrust of the bill, SB1522. They dealt with issues such as proper venue in a case, allowing for ordinary alteration of records and clarifying other language in the bill. The committee moved to lump four acceptable amendments into one for the purpose of simplification.

Technically, the committee approved the first amendment to the measure that represented the basic changes requested by the Haslam administration from the original version. The latest version of the bill provides for non-economic damages in civil cases to be capped at $750,000, with a $1 million cap applicable in catastrophic cases.

Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, offered an amendment that would raise the caps on non-economic damages to $1.25 million, rather than the $750,000, and would have raised the $1 million cap in catastrophic cases to $2.5 million.

“I know this would put our state higher (in the level of caps on damages) than some other states, but after a great deal of consideration and listening to the testimony last week, I feel this is an appropriate move,” Overbey said.

The amendment failed, as did two proposals from Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams.

Barnes attempted to amend the legislation with a provision that would tie figures in the bill to the consumer price index. Another amendment by Barnes attempted to replace a reference to spinal cord injuries to include language that covered serious brain injuries in the catastrophic case category. Norris said the topic of brain injuries had been given a lot of considerations in talks over the bill.

“It was weighed. It was evaluated, and in the negotiations it was not considered to be a prudent thing to include in this legislation. Because of that, as the sponsor, I consider it to be a hostile amendment,” Norris said.

Haslam initially proposed legislation that had caps on non-economic damages in all cases at $750,000. Later, provisions for catastrophic cases were added that carried a $1.25 million cap, but that figure was later brought down to $1 million as it currently stands.

The tort reform bill is one of the main pieces of legislation proposed by Haslam, who is in his first year in office. It stands alongside education reforms such as teacher tenure changes and loosening limits on charter schools as Haslam priorities. Thus far, Haslam, a Republican, appears to be getting basically what he wants from the Republican-controlled legislature.

The House Judiciary Committee has also passed the tort reform bill. The bill will move to a floor vote in both chambers, after being scheduled by the House and Senate’s calendar committees.

Those voting for the bill Tuesday were Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, the committee chairman, and Overbey. Those opposing the bill were Barnes, Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, and Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

Ramsey: Keeping Non-Economic Damages Cap at $750K Preferable

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said this week he believes Republicans in the Senate prefer the original version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tort reform bill, and that the legislation will likely move through the Senate simultaneously with that in the House.

Ramsey said he anticipates Senate activity on the bill next week. He said his prediction would be that the Senate would adopt part of the governor’s bill, but not the current House version as amended.

“I think the majority of our caucus likes the governor’s original bill without the amendment,” Ramsey told reporters. “I think the bill to begin with was a compromise.”

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a version of the tort reform measure, which is one of the main legislative efforts on Haslam’s agenda, and it is headed to the full House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The thrust of the legislation, HB2008/SB1522, is to put caps on monetary awards for victims in civil suits. Haslam says the caps will create a more stable business climate for the state. He believes the bill will help create jobs, his top priority as governor.

Ramsey also sees the bill as a way to help create jobs, but he has refused to speculate on a specific number of jobs that could come from the action.

Haslam originally offered a proposal that put caps on non-economic damages in such lawsuits at $750,000. But the legislation immediately became the subject of negotiations behind the scenes among various parties involved.

The administration offered a subsequent version of the legislation that would raise the cap in “catastrophic” cases to $1.25 million. But by the time the subcommittee took up the bill Wednesday, the $1.25 million had been reduced to $1 million.

Herbert Slatery, Haslam’s legal counsel, attributed the changing figures to “the legislative process.”

The $1 million would apply to the most severe cases, such as those that involve amputations or spinal cord injuries that leave victims with paralysis. The $750,000 cap remains in the bill for most cases, and Ramsey’s comments suggest the Senate would like to keep the $750,000 in all cases, as Haslam first proposed.

Advocates for reform say there should be some level of predictability of how big awards could be in cases where victims are harmed. Opponents say such figures should be left to the judicial system, and that legislated caps significantly take away the opportunity for justice in such cases.

The issue has become a matter of emotional appeal, with opponents of the caps offering examples of people who have suffered serious losses. Testimony in committee hearings has included people affected by such cases.

Opponents of the bill have used the star power and persuasiveness of actor and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson to head the lobbying effort against the bill. Thompson has appeared before lawmakers but did not address the subcommittee on Wednesday.

Haslam has emphasized that caps will not apply in cases where intentional misconduct comes into play.

The bill includes caps on punitive damages that are two times the amount of compensatory damages in a case, or $500,000, whichever is greater.

It is possible other amendments will be offered on the legislation.

“On any kind of issue, you can argue extremes on both sides,” Ramsey said. “You kind of look at what’s reality in real life, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”

The legislation defines “catastrophic loss or injury” as cases that involve 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.