The state Senate adopted Gov. Bill Haslam’s sweeping tort reform proposal Thursday, capping jury awards for injuries and deaths caused by negligence or wrongful actions ranging from medical malpractice to highway accidents.
The vote was 21-12 mostly along party lines. Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, voted with the Republicans. One Republican — Sen. Mike Faulk, a trial lawyer from Kingsport — voted no. The House voted 74-24 for the bill on Monday.
During a four-hour debate, Republicans argued tort reform will bring new jobs to Tennessee by eliminating the potential for outrageously large jury awards, while Democrats told horror stories of people victimized by callous wrongdoers.
“It’s the global economy,” Senate Republican leader Mark Norris said. “Folks on both sides of the aisle have railed all year long about the importance of jobs and economic competitiveness. What we’re discussing is legislation that’s designed to put us on a level playing field and, most importantly, it is designed to provide predictability and certainty for businesses.”
Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, told the Senate about a college coed who fell from a fraternity house balcony because a rickety railing gave way.
“That 19-year-old woman is a quadriplegic today,” Herron said.
Under the bill, she can win $1 million in damages beyond her medical costs and lost pay, Herron pointed out. If that woman lives to the age of 62, her life expectancy as a quadriplegic, she would win $29 a day, he said.
“She’ll never marry. She’ll never have a baby. She’ll never enjoy the very most important things in life. But by golly, she’ll get $29 a day, if she gets the maximum. She can’t go to the bathroom by herself. Would you take $29 a day for that?”
The bill puts no limits on compensatory damages in lawsuits, including medical expenses and loss of pay or earning capacity. But it places a $750,000 cap on most so-called noneconomic damages — such as physical and emotional pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of companionship, humiliation and loss of enjoyment of life. The cap is $1 million for certain catastrophic cases — spinal cord injuries, amputations, severe burns and the death of a parent leaving young children.
The proposal also limits punitive damages, which are intended to punish wrongdoers, to twice the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater. Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Goodlettsville, argued against that cap.
“This is punishment. This is getting somebody’s attention because it was so gross and willful and bad that you want to send a message to that industry. Why would you want to forgive them? Why would you want to cap it?” Haynes asked.
Tort reform will make Tennessee so much more business-friendly that, by itself, it will add approximately 122,400 jobs and $16 billion in output to the state’s economy over the next decade, according to a much-criticized report by businesses backing the bill.
Faulk asked, “Has any business told state government that they will come to Tennessee and bring their jobs and their capital investment if we pass this bill?”
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, replied, “This is not the type of agreement that would ever be discussed with a business beforehand.” But he claimed Mississippi landed its Toyota auto plant because that state enacted tort reform.
The Senate defeated a slew of Democratic amendments, including one to lift the cap on damages for the death of an unborn child.
“This is an opportunity for you to show just how pro-life you are,” Herron said.
Kelsey responded, “I am strong supporter of the pro-life movement, but this amendment doesn’t belong in this bill.”