Haslam signs budget, lawsuit caps legislation

Haslam signs budget, lawsuit caps legislation

June 17th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE-Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday put his name on one of his main initiatives, capping jury awards for damages in personal injury lawsuits, as well as the $30.8 billion budget that Tennessee lawmakers adopted last month.

"Proud to sign this year's budget," the Republican announced via Twitter. "During difficult times it's great to have strong bipartisan support."

The 2011-12 spending plan that takes effect July 1 is about $1.23 billion, or 3.9 percent, under the current budget.

Reductions reflect the loss of federal stimulus dollars. But actual state spending rises as a result of better-than-expected revenues.

An estimated 1,320 filled and vacant positions will be cut, according to a preliminary estimate by legislative staff.

The budget, which passed both chambers unanimously, includes $71 million to help counties and cities deal with natural disasters, including tornadoes in Hamilton and Bradley counties and floods in West Tennessee.

It also provides $126 million in federal funds to restore 20 weeks of extended unemployment benefits for thousands of jobless Tennesseans. Another $3 million is coming from state funds.

An accompanying bond bill contains $34.6 million to expand the Wacker Chemical plant under construction in Bradley County.

Earlier in the day, Haslam was joined by GOP lawmakers including House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, as he signed his initiative to cap lawsuit damages.

He said he believes officials "did everything we could to protect victims' rights" while at the same time providing a "predictable playing field" for businesses that will promote economic growth.

"We're not just talking about providing a better business environment in Tennessee," Haslam said. "It's happening."

The new law places a $750,000 cap on noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering. The cap rises to $1 million in cases involving amputation, the death of a parent of minor children, serious spinal cord injuries and severe burns.

Punitive damages are limited to twice the amount of compensatory damages or $500,000 - whichever is greater - except in instances of intentional misconduct, records destruction, or conduct under influence of drugs or alcohol.

McCormick said, "It's taken decades to get this done. What the practical effect of this will be is a more favorable economic development environment."

But consumer advocates weren't enthusiastic about the lawsuit caps.

"We've heard a lot of talk from the governor on how this bill will help businesses, but nothing on how it will hurt Tennesseans," said Mary Mancini of Tennessee Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group.