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Tom Humphrey
By Tom Humphrey January 20, 2012

'Tort-reform' passed in first year

In a campaign brochure, Bill Haslam said he would pass "meaningful tort reform" to put caps on individual lawsuits against health care institutions and providers. He said the cost of settling huge lawsuits was a reason for high health care costs.

In the 2010 legislative session, Gov. Haslam made a broad tort reform bill one of his first legislative priorities and assigned his longtime friend and gubernatorial legal counsel, Herbert Slatery, to spearhead the push for passage. He was successful and, on June 16, 2011, the governor signed The Civil Justice Act into law – though it did not actually take effect until Oct. 1 and does not apply to lawsuits based on actions occurring before that date.

The law limits how much money an injured plaintiff can collect from a defendant beyond what is necessary to cover actual lost wages, medical costs and other out-of-pocket expenses.

It put a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages, except in instances of intentional misconduct, records destruction or conduct under the influence of drugs or alcohol; raised the cap on non-economic damages for catastrophic losses to $1 million; and placed a cap on punitive damages of two times the compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater, except in the instances included on the $750,000 cap. Another limitation is that a single plaintiff can't recover separate capped damages from separate defendants; instead the defendants will be treated collectively should damages be awarded.

Haslam contends the law will make Tennessee more "business friendly” and attract jobs. It has plenty of critics. There could be a legal challenge, perhaps based on contentions by some trial lawyers arguing that the limits on damages that a jury can award infringe on the state Constitution's guarantee of a right to trial by jury in civil cases.

Some Republicans thought the $750,000 general cap on damages was too high to make the new law as meaningful as they thought it should be. But on the campaign trail, Haslam only talked of tort reform for medical professionals without including all lawsuits involving any kind of business or individual.

Thus, the bill introduced and passed over the objections of some Democrats, actually goes beyond what Haslam promised in his campaign. This is definitely a Promise Kept

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