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How Much is a Tennessean's Life Worth?

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Monday, May 2, 2011   

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Governor Bill Haslam's tort reform bill (HB1993/SB2001) has passed the key Senate Judiciary Committee and will now go on to the House and the floor of the Senate. The bill sets arbitrary caps on damage awards.

But opponents say the panel only got half the truth and the measure, in effect, values a Tennessean's life at only $750,000. Supporters of the bill pointed to "big verdicts" in some tort cases as a justification.

Phillip Miller, president of the Tennessee Association for Justice, says the Senate panel was fed information about cases such as one involving a jury award of $34 million for what was referred to as "just a broken hip." But Miller says what the panel didn't hear were the details of the 16 months of abuse, untreated pain, and the eventual death of an elderly man. Miller says the case wasn't about money, but about what happened to a loved one.

"And when the jury returned this verdict, what they were trying to do and what they wanted to do, was to send a message that this is so outrageous that the only way we can make this corporation understand how bad this is, is to return a big verdict, and that's what they did."

Miller says this bill, which would impose an arbitrary cap of three-quarters-of-a-million dollars on damages a jury may award for pain, would also take away the power of juries.

Miller says it's hard to put a price tag on what is lost if a loved one is hurt or killed.

"This bill says, 'Well, you can get their lost wages and for everything else, all the important stuff like not having someone to walk you down the aisle, not having someone to talk to when you break up with your boyfriend, all that other stuff, the stuff that's really important, that's worth $750,000.'"

Miller says the bill includes caps for non-economic damages and gives a jury very limited power in punishing a company that has acted irresponsibly.

Supporters of the bill say it fixes a flaw in the Tennessee civil justice system that puts the state at a competitive disadvantage for attracting new businesses and jobs.

Miller says there's no problem with runaway jury verdicts, adding that the system isn't broken and doesn't need to be fixed. He says the average verdict in the state is $400,000.


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