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.