Haslam Close to Signing State Civil Justice Act

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

By Bill Dries, MemphisDailyNews.com
May 19, 2011

There were still some differences to be worked out between the state House and the state Senate. But the Civil Justice Act, limiting lawsuit damages in Tennessee, is on its way to the desk of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as one of the last acts of the state legislature before it gets to the final act of this year’s session, the state budget.

Haslam said in Memphis this week that once a conference committee works out the differences in the two versions of the bill approved by the House and Senate, he will sign it.

It will be one of several legislative accomplishments on the list of the Republican governor who began his term of office in January with Republican majorities and Republican leadership in both chambers.

The basics of the proposal, as amended by the Senate, put a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages in civil lawsuits such as pain and suffering. The cap goes up to $1 million in cases of serious spinal cord injuries, severe burns, amputation of hands and feet or the death of a parent of a minor child.

Punitive damages are capped to whichever is greater between $500,000 or twice the amount of compensatory damages.

The bill was carried in the state Senate by Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville, an attorney, on one side of an issue that split the attorneys serving in the capital.

“This is a very important piece of legislation,” Norris said on the Senate floor at the outset of the final debate in the 33-member chamber with 14 attorneys serving.

Norris said the legislation is not as simple as tort reform.

“It’s become much more than that,” he said. “The state of Tennessee has always been in the vanguard, on the cutting edge of reform of our civil justice system.”

He pointed to medical liability reform legislation that took effect in 2008, legislation that had no caps.

“When we did the medical liability reforms we focused on particular practices and on particular states,” Norris said. “What’s before us now is what we do to remain competitive not in the South, not just in a regional economy or even nationwide but in the global context.”

The most vocal critic in the Senate was Dresden Democrat Roy Herron, also an attorney. He said the cap might do just what its proponents claimed, serve as an incentive for new businesses to locate in Tennessee.

“For a multibillion-dollar corporation that might poison a whole lot of people … it might not be a very big cap at all. We’ve just seen time and again people do wrong. We’ve seen Bernie Madoff swindle folks. We’ve seen Mr. Stanford swindle folks,” he said referring to Stanford Financial CEO Allan Stanford. “This may very well generate some jobs … because if a company knows they want to do bad acts, they know they can move to Tennessee and they will have certainty.”

Herron compared the limits on juries in such lawsuits to the decisions juries make in criminal cases including deciding whether to impose the death penalty.

“I understand some people don’t trust juries and don’t trust jurors. … They’re a lot like some of us in this chamber. They make mistakes,” Herron said. “But I trust them to hear the evidence and do what’s right a lot more than I trust any of us without hearing the evidence.”

Norris countered that the issue was studied thoroughly and is not the legislature’s first consideration of such reforms.

He also said Herron’s citing of notorious cases was name dropping that amounted to anecdotal evidence.

“I suspect that there will be those who recover more quickly now, who may not have ever recovered before,” Norris said. “We’re not legislating by anecdote and we don’t want to litigate by ambush in this state.”

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