Liberty and Justice News NewsTracker

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.

Business and Economy NewsTracker

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.

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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.

Business and Economy Education News

Harwell: Union Bargaining Restrictions Likely to Pass

House Speaker Beth Harwell told a group of Tennessee business leaders Tuesday she thinks a bill limiting teachers’ union collective bargaining will pass this year, but probably not until after other education legislation favored by Gov. Bill Haslam.

“We are looking to allowing the governor’s package to move forward first, and then we’ll be looking at collective bargaining,” said Harwell, who addressed an audience of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Home Builders Association of Tennessee at a meeting in downtown Nashville.

The union negotiation bill will likely start picking up steam in the House this month, she said.

Sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, SB 113 and HB 130 would abolish a union’s power to negotiate binding teacher contracts with local boards of education. The legislation has drawn considerable attention as the Republican-dominated Legislature looks to shrink the Tennessee Education Association‘s role and influence in state education policy discussions and local school employee contract negotiations.

Harwell said she believes there will be a few changes in the bill, although she did not elaborate on that point. “Ultimately, I think it will pass,” the Republican from Nashville said.

The collective bargaining legislation has been approved by the Senate Education Committee, 6-3. In the House it is awaiting a hearing in the general subcommittee for education.

“Anything that has an impact on how well a child learns in the classroom should be taken out of the negotiation process,” Harwell said, attempting to separate the educational experience from items like job benefits.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative proposal focuses on another education issue, lengthening the probationary period for teacher tenure from three years to five, and Haslam said Tuesday he may weigh in on the collective bargaining bill. Haslam’s package also carries a tort reform measure, which Haslam believes will make Tennessee a more attractive state to employers.

Harwell is marshalling legislation largely in support of Haslam’s agenda. For the first time since Reconstruction, the Republicans hold the upper hand in the Senate, House and governor’s office. Little GOP dissent has emerged over the Haslam package.

Harwell finds herself in an historic position, the first woman to be House speaker. But she told her audience Tuesday the job comes with mixed responsibilities.

“As many years as I’ve served in the General Assembly (since 1988), I never fully realized how much comes through the speaker’s office,” Harwell said.

“There is a lot that goes through that office, from mundane items like assigning parking spaces and assigning secretaries and office space, to all the contracts that come through the General Assembly. I’ve reviewed a lot of those already.”

She is also involved in appointments to various boards and commissions, she said.

“So it is, in itself, a very powerful position to be in in state government. It’s designed to be that. Not only is it an awesome opportunity but it is somewhat of a humbling experience for me,” she said.

Harwell said she sees the current makeup of state government to be a chance for Republicans to shine and show their ability to lead.

Knowing her audience, she made sure she let the business community know she understands their needs from government, which she said should be limited. Harwell used her husband, Sam, a businessman, as an example.

She told the story of how she was about to speak to a small-business group in her district and asked her husband if there were one thing she could do as a legislator for a business owner, what it would be.

“He very quickly looked back at me, held up his hand and said, ‘Leave me alone. Don’t do anything for me. Don’t do anything against me. Just leave me alone.'” she said.

“Those words have echoed in my mind many times as we’ve talked about business.”

But she also said her husband, who runs Nashville-based Big Time Toys, does not get up each morning pondering how to create a job.

“You know what he sits at the table and says?” she asked. “‘How can I make a profit this year? And if I make a profit, then the byproduct will be a couple of new jobs in Middle Tennessee.’

“That’s the byproduct, and I’m smart enough to realize that.”

She told her audience flat-out, “You’re in the business to make a profit, and there’s nothing wrong with that word. Profit. It’s a good thing.

“It’s what America is all about.”

Press Releases

TCPR: Many Benefits Would Result from Restricting ‘Lawsuit Abuse’

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, March 1, 2011:

NASHVILLE, TN – Tennesseans can expect to see job growth, more affordable health care insurance, greater access to health care (particularly in rural counties), decreases in property/casualty rates, and a more predictable civil justice system should lawmakers pass much-needed lawsuit abuse reform, a panel of legal experts recently stated at a public education forum held on the campus of Vanderbilt University.

The three-member panel of James Blumstein, a law professor at Vanderbilt University; Ted Frank, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute; and Charlie Ross, a former State Senator in Mississippi, presented their perspectives on how Tennessee businesses and citizens would benefit from lawsuit abuse reform, or tort reform. Their experiences are based on before-and-after findings in states where reform has passed, as well as academic research discussed in a newly released white paper called Lawsuit Abuse Reform in the Volunteer State.

Panelists agreed that Tennessee’s current civil justice system is both inconsistent and unsustainable. Senator Ross, who successfully led lawsuit abuse reform efforts in Mississippi, said “Reform brought more predictability to our civil court system. Our objective was never to take away the right of someone to file a lawsuit; our objective was to create more balance, and we did that.”

Other key points included:

  • Based on reforms in other states, lawsuit abuse reform could result in 30,000 jobs a year or 577 jobs each week in Tennessee.
  • Reform could mean 67,000 more Tennesseans would have health insurance.
  • Reform means greater access to medical care, particularly in rural counties.
  • Reform could lead to legal settlements that are more in line with actual harm done.

Representatives for Focus577, a recently launched campaign to educate citizens about the need for reform in civil lawsuits, say lawsuit abuse reform is quickly becoming a hot topic for the Tennessee General Assembly. The goal of Focus577, named for the potential of 577 new jobs created each week through reform, is to educate Tennesseans of the positive legal and economic impact that lawsuit abuse reform has had in other states.

February’s forum was sponsored by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan think tank committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee. For a detailed account of the forum, see the Tennessee Report at

Through research and advocacy, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research promotes policy solutions grounded in the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. For more information about lawsuit abuse reform, visit or

Press Releases

TCPR Hosting Tort Reform Forum: ‘Lawsuit Abuse’ Aggravates Unemployment, says Free-Market Group

Press Release from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, Feb. 21, 2010:

Focus577  Campaign Kicks Off with February Forum

NASHVILLE, TN – Key changes to the state’s civil justice system could create an average of 30,000 jobs a year, provide health insurance for 67,000 more Tennesseans, give greater access to much needed medical care, and result in legal settlements that are more in line with actual harm done, say representatives for Focus577, a campaign launched today to educate citizens about the need for reform in civil lawsuits.

Lawsuit abuse reform, or tort reform, is quickly becoming a hot topic for the Tennessee General Assembly. Based on similar legislation passed in other states including Mississippi and Texas, proponents argue that reducing lawsuit abuse will lead to a more fair and just system, as well as boost the state’s economy.

Focus577, named for the potential of 577 new jobs created each week through reform, is being launched by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan think tank. The goal of Focus577 is to educate Tennesseans of the positive legal and economic impact that lawsuit abuse reform has had in other states.

“The facts speak for themselves,” said Justin Owen, Tennessee Center for Policy Research president. “Independent academics and researchers have studied states that have passed various types of reform ranging from non-economic and punitive damages caps to class action reform. Based on the measurable outcomes in those areas, there’s no question that Tennesseans could best be served by lawsuit abuse reform through job creation, availability of health insurance, greater access to medical care, and an overall improved quality of life for them and their families.”

According to a new study, Lawsuit Abuse Reform in the Volunteer State, released today by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research:

  • With lawsuit abuse reform, Tennessee can create an average of 30,000 jobs each year. That’s 577 jobs every week.
  • Reform could allow as many as 67,000 uninsured Tennesseans to finally obtain health insurance.
  • Forty-seven counties in Tennessee currently lack an emergency doctor. Reform could bring an emergency doctor to at least five or six of these counties, a much needed infusion of doctors in areas that must now do without.
  • If lawsuit abuse reform had been enacted in 2000, the state could have produced an additional $895 million in health care revenue, $611 million in durable goods manufacturing, and an additional $806 million in the retail trade industry in Tennessee over the ensuing decade. That’s more than $2.3 billion in additional production lost due to abusive lawsuits.

Owen stressed that lawsuit abuse reform isn’t about taking away the rights of citizens to file suit or limit their access to the courts. “When an individual or a business does wrong, they should be held accountable,” said Owen. “Unfortunately, our current civil justice system is rigged to allow trial lawyers to prey off both plaintiffs and defendants.”

“Our goal is to help people understand the benefits of making changes that would curb frivolous lawsuits, unclog the system, diminish unjustified multi-million dollar judgments, and at the same time, protect innocent Tennesseans from trial lawyers’ predatory practices. By following the lead of other states that have implemented broad-based lawsuit abuse reform, Tennessee could reap significant economic and legal benefits while maintaining a fair, just legal system.”

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research will kick off the Focus557 campaign by hosting an educational forum for the public on Tuesday, February 22, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Vanderbilt University Commons Center, Room 237, 230 Appleton Place. Free parking is available in Lot 77 off the corner of 18th Avenue South and Horton Avenue. Click here for a map. For more information or to RSVP, call (615) 383-6431.

The full study, Lawsuit Abuse Reform in the Volunteer State, can be downloaded at:

The Tennessee Center for Policy Research is an independent, nonprofit, and nonpartisan think tank committed to achieving a freer, more prosperous Tennessee. Through research and advocacy, the Center promotes policy solutions grounded in the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. For more information, visit

Education News

Haslam Insists Tenure Reform About Improving Education, Not Punishing Teachers

The latest stop of the Republican locomotive on Capitol Hill came Thursday in the form of Gov. Bill Haslam‘s first legislative package, and like the Legislature, Haslam seriously challenged the status quo on teachers.

Haslam proposes changing the probationary time on teacher tenure from three years to five years, a step he said fits in with the overall goal of improving education in the state — which he says is a step toward the broader goal of providing a workforce that will attract jobs.

Haslam said that while the state is making progress on education reform, notably in its First to the Top initiative, it is not where it should be, and he’s convinced changing tenure is one way to improve the system.

His package came only a day after the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 to advance a bill taking away the mandatory collective bargaining leverage teachers’ unions currently enjoy in 91 of Tennessee’s 136 school districts. That meeting drew a crowd of teachers opposed to the legislation, but it moved nonetheless.

The governor sounded keenly aware of concerns coming from the teachers’ corner but insisted on Thursday his moves are necessary to make Tennessee a more competitive state. In that same vein he has proposed tort reform measures that he says will also help the state compete against neighboring states for jobs.

Haslam addressed the media outside the office of House Speaker Beth Harwell, and the scene at Legislative Plaza gave the clear impression that all the reforms the Republicans are advocating are likely to be approved. Republicans are in charge of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time since Reconstruction, and there appears to be little the Democrats can do about it.

For his part, Haslam appears to be sticking to the script he articulated in his campaign for office. He has said his first priority is job creation, yet he never suggested a legislative package would be needed for that — only aggressive salesmanship to attract jobs. His second stated priority was education, and his first legislative package proposed removing the limits on charter schools as well as the tenure changes.

He said he hears the question of whether the state is just “picking on teachers.”

“I’d say it’s absolutely not true,” Haslam said. “What we’re doing across the board in education in Tennessee is raising standards.

“Nothing is more important than making certain we have great teachers in every classroom, and we’re going to continue to focus on that.”

Haslam said he wanted to make sure the state doesn’t continue to rank in the 40s nationally in education. He said there has been a lot of conversation with teachers across the state and that the discussions will continue. He said he plans to be with a group of teachers in Upper East Tennessee on Tuesday morning having “specific conversations about what we can do to help them in the classroom.”

Haslam seemed to have immediate support of members of the Legislature.

“I strongly support the governor’s tenure recommendations,” said Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, who is Senate speaker pro tempore and a member of the Senate Education Committee. “Making tenure meaningful is important, and I think it’s important to teachers.”

Woodson said it is helpful to step back and look at the overall education reform process, which began with a special session of the Legislature in 2010 that set the stage for Tennessee’s application for federal Race to the Top funds. Tennessee won $500 million.

“It’s moving student achievement in the right direction. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Woodson said.

David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for SCORE, former Sen. Bill Frist’s education reform group, approved of Haslam’s recommendations.

“Research has shown that teachers are the most important factor in determining how much a student learns. Governor Haslam makes a critical step in addressing teacher effectiveness by focusing on reforming tenure,” Mansouri said. “The governor’s proposed package will make tenure decisions more meaningful by rewarding effective teachers and addressing ineffective ones.”

Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, has sponsored the House measure over teacher bargaining rights.

“I’ve noticed when you talk to the teachers’ union, no matter what you try to do, they don’t like it,” Maggart said. “That’s why I have this bill.”

Haslam’s package called for tort reform, a recurring issue, as Republicans seek to diminish the impact of trial lawyers where courts issue large sums in damages. He calls for a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages and a cap on punitive damages of two times compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.

“My opinion is that the trial lawyers have had a lot of influence for decades in the state of Tennessee and that it would be proper to review all the awards,” Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the Republican House leader, said.

“I don’t know specifically what changes need to be made. But I think we certainly need to take a look at it, considering how it’s been out of balance for so many decades in this state.”

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VIDEOS: Haslam Supports Tort Reform, Backs Expanded Role for Charter Schools

Gov. Bill Haslam detailed his legislative priorities on Capitol Hill Thursday morning, laying out a laundry list of issues he wants to clean up in this year’s legislative session.

His three-pronged agenda focuses on education, tort reform and government efficiency.

“When I first started all this, I said our goal is to make Tennessee the number-one location in the Southeast for high-quality jobs, and we have a legislative effort that reflects that,” he told reporters early Thursday morning before lawmakers called both chambers into session.

His plan includes lengthening the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure.

In addition, Haslam said he wants to increase the role of charter schools in Tennessee. He is proposing lifting the cap on charter schools and providing for open enrollment and allowing lottery scholarships to be used for summer courses. He furthermore said that when the state takes over a failing school as part of the First to the Top legislation approved last year, it should be able to contract with charter schools in an effort to improve opportunities for the students affected.

Haslam also said he wants lawmakers to limit certain payouts in personal injury lawsuits and reduce the number of Tennessee Regulatory Authority board members from four to three.

This package of bills does not include a formal jobs package even though he ran his election campaign saying he wanted to help create jobs. He said he didn’t think legislation could directly create jobs.

Press Releases

Haslam Formally Announces Legislative Agenda

Press Release from the Office of Gov. Bill Haslam, Feb. 17, 2011:

Legislation Focuses on Educating Workforce, Identifying Best Teachers, Revising Civil Justice System

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam today introduced his administration’s legislative package for the 2011 session, focusing on educating the workforce, identifying the best teachers and revising the state’s civil justice system.

Haslam’s legislative package is a single piece of his jobs agenda to make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for high quality jobs.

The legislation seeks to:

  • Make tenure tied to classroom performance; extend probationary time from three to five years
  • Lift the cap on charter schools and allow open enrollment
  • Allow the state’s Achievement School District (part of First to the Top) to authorize charter schools
  • Extend use of the lottery scholarship for summer courses and cap the total number of hours based on required degree completion
  • Limits non-economic damages for both healthcare liability action and other personal injury actions
  • Limits and clarifies standards for assessing punitive damages
  • Limits appeal bond amounts

“Our legislation being filed with the Tennessee General Assembly is tightly focused on opportunities to enhance job creation and is one piece of our agenda to make Tennessee more competitive in the Southeast,” Haslam said.

Other pieces of Haslam’s jobs agenda include streamlining state government and aggressively examining rules and regulations to assure this three-part test is met: will they make a difference, are they performance-based, and what the expected outcomes are.

Also, the Department of Economic and Community Development is focused on a top-to-bottom approach that aligns state efforts with returns on investment.

“These initial steps in transforming state government will lead to more efficiency and effectiveness and deliver excellent customer service,” Haslam said.