Bill Capping Lawsuit Damages Passes House

The Tennessee House of Representatives on Monday approved a central feature of Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative agenda.

On a 72-24 vote, lawmakers embraced a “tort reform” bill that the Haslam administration has said will make Tennessee a friendlier and more attractive place for companies to do business.

House Bill 2008, the “Tennessee Civil Justice Act of 2011,” would among other things enact limits on non-economic damages in lawsuits.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully through a number of amendments to lift the $750,000 cap or exclude certain “catastrophic” injuries from the list of those for which the caps apply.

Democrats also pointed out that Tennessee is already regarded as one of the most business-friendly states in the country — that, in essence, the bill is a solution in search of a problem.

They furthermore argued that the bill hamstrings the ability of juries to mete out justice.

“Tennessee’s Constitution is very clear. It says ‘the right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate’,” said Eric Stewart, D-Nashville, who called the bill “one of the most momentous changes in the law that will occur this year.”

Capping lawsuit damages will undermine the intent of the constitution’s vision of “(making) sure the power stays with the people,” Stewart said.

Republicans countered that in criminal law there are restrictions and guidelines that dictate the sentences courts can hand out to individuals convicted of crimes. Those stipulations in no way violate or undermine the right to trial by jury, they said.

GOP lawmakers also argued that HB2008 is necessary to ensure that Tennessee maintains a competitive edge.

“We need to keep common sense at the forefront here,” said House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick. Because Tennessee borders so many states, he said, it faces a “constantly changing landscape.”

“If we just stay still, we will fall behind, especially when there are so many border states to go to,” said McCormick.

Capping lawsuit damages will provide “predictability for businesses that are considering making investments in our state,” said McCormick.

All 63 of the Republicans present in the chamber voted for the bill. They were joined by eight Democrats. Independent Kent Williams, the former speaker of the House, voted against the measure.