Senators Challenge, Defend Tort Reform Job Claims

On April 19, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

By Joe White,
April 19, 2011

Tennessee lawmakers debated whether Governor Bill Haslam’s tort reform bill would actually result in more jobs, in a marathon session of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

The bill would limit non-economic damages in civil suits.

Senator Brian Kelsey outlined the governor’s amended version and repeated the standard talking points: if businesses can compute the maximum cost for losing a lawsuit, they will be more likely to come to Tennessee, bringing jobs.

“Without this law, Tennessee is the only state in the Southeast with no cap on punitive damages – the only state. And with this law, we can become the number one state in the Southeast for high-quality jobs.”

Kelsey’s statement raised doubts from Senator Beverly Marrero, a Democrat.

Marrero: “Do you know where these people…I mean, why would they come from Mississippi, if they’ve got caps in Mississippi, why would a business move from Mississippi to Tennessee?”

Norris: “There is not that concise of a correlation. The issue here is really to sort of level the playing field in this arena. It’s not who competes for the tightest cap or the lowest cap.”

That’s Mark Norris, the Republican Leader in the Senate and the governor’s point man on tort reform. Norris says the state must match other states’ tort reform caps in order to remain competitive in recruiting industry.

The Senate Judiciary Committee stayed until almost eight o’clock last night to hear testimony, and then deferred the bill to next week.

Meanwhile in the lower chamber, the bill is ready to go to the House floor.

An advertising campaign by supporters says that tort reform will create up to 577 new jobs a week as businesses look at the caps set on lawsuit awards and decide to invest in Tennessee.

The bill is HB 2008 McCormick/SB 1522 Norris, governor’s tort reform bill.

With the governor’s amendment adopted in both houses, the state’s bill tracking system is expected to post the changes.

During Monday’s wide-ranging debate, proponents of the tort changes argued that the state has had about ten high-dollar damage awards in the last five years.
Senator Mike Bell asked the backers of the legislation whether judges should be blamed, where they did not overturn the awards.

Nashville attorney Lee Barfield, representing Tennesseans for Economic Growth, the lobbying organization created to push for the bill, responded.

“A jury doesn’t make the laws. The judges don’t make the laws. The legislature makes the laws. And so that’s why we’re coming to you and suggesting, you know, with this bill, we think these are good laws, and it’ll be good for everybody – plaintiffs, defendants, and especially good for jobs.”

But Fred Thompson, the former U.S. Senator lobbying for trial lawyers and against tort reform, argues that the centuries-old jury system isn’t broken and that predictability in measuring lawsuit exposure is over-rated.

“Because you have some high verdicts, that doesn’t prove anything. Because some defense lawyers have lost some lawsuits, that doesn’t prove anything.
Because some people think that they have to settle cases that they really shouldn’t have to settle, because they’re afraid to go before a jury, that doesn’t prove anything. The question here is, ‘What is justice?’”


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