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Democrats: Haslam’s Tort Reform Substitutes Will of Politicians for Wisdom of Juries

Press Release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, May 12, 2011:

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats fought Thursday against efforts by Senate Republicans to arbitrarily cap damages awarded to victims of horrific accidents, medical malpractice and other life-changing injuries.

“Today state lawmakers put a price on the life of our children. They put a price on the life of our parents and grandchildren. They put a price on the life of the weak, the paralyzed, the neglected — all under the guise of economic development,” Senator Eric Stewart of Belvidere said.

House Bill 2008, as passed by the Senate 21-12, would cap damages for pain and suffering awarded by a court to $750,000, and $1 million for severe injuries. Currently Tennessee does not have a cap on such damages.

“By passing this law, lawmakers are taking the decision-making process away from a jury of citizens and telling them that the government doesn’t trust them to make the right decision,” Senator Andy Berke of Chattanooga said.

Punitive damages would be capped at the greater of either $500,000 or twice the amount of the combined economic and non-economic damages. Because economic damages include lost wages, the total payouts will be lower for those who make less.

Sen. Roy Herron noted during floor debate that a young quadriplegic woman receiving the maximum amount possible under the caps would receive an estimated $29 per day over the remainder of her life.

An Associated Press story noted that last year in Tennessee, only 14 trials exceeded the proposed caps, meaning there would be no radical change to the state’s job creation climate, as supporters claim.

“We should be up here talking about measures to create jobs and put people back to work,” said Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson. “This legislation doesn’t create jobs. Instead, it hurts those who need help the most.”

The bill will now go to Governor Bill Haslam, who is expected to sign the legislation.

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.