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VOL. 126 | NO. 77 | Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Big Verdict Winners Say It's Not About the Money

SHEILA BURKE | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – A mother who won $1.5 million in court for the death of her only child says the March verdict brought her some closure, but she was too emotional a week later to testify to state lawmakers about why she thinks their idea of limiting jury awards is wrong.

A widow worries that nursing homes will have even less reason to make sure that patients like her husband are fed enough and don't develop bed sores big enough to kill them.

And a businessman is fearful that all it takes is one out-of-control jury to bankrupt him.

State court records show that very few lawsuits in Tennessee ever go to a jury and fewer yet end up with awards higher than the caps Gov. Bill Haslam is close to winning in the General Assembly. Last year there were 14 such trials in the state. Some people who did win awards say they didn't want the money as much as they wanted a weapon to stop actions like the ones that killed their loved ones.

For LaFonda Bond, going to trial meant finding out how her 22-month-old son Ford could have choked on a piece of food at mealtime at a church-run preschool. She hopes the verdict will send a message to any business that cares for children.

"I think because of this case, daycares will be more cautious, especially at mealtime," said the 34-year-old mother who works for the city of Jackson.

Bond said she could not bring herself to make a planned visit to Nashville this month to talk to lawmakers, because her emotions were still raw after hearing the details surrounding her son's death at the trial.

"It was just kind of overwhelming," she said of the thought of speaking to lawmakers so soon after the trial. "I thought, 'Is this going to be like being in court all over again.'"

For 78-year-old Jean McLemore of Johnson City, winning a $4.75 million jury verdict meant punishing people she holds responsible for the death of her husband of 55 years. The widow said she was forced to put him in a nursing home to recover from a stroke, and there he suffered severe neglect – including malnourishment and a bedsore on his tailbone the size of a saucer – that caused his 2005 death.

The widow says she the verdict meant the company would be punished for cutting corners on staffing to make money.

"I just wanted to see justice done for the way they treated my husband over there," McLemore said while weeping. "My husband was a good man. He shouldn't have been treated the way he was treated over there."

But on the other side, business owners across the state say they are paying skyrocketing legal fees and face the constant threat of one massive jury verdict.

Bill Lee, CEO of Franklin-based Lee Company, says his firm's legal costs have increased six-fold in the last seven years. The company does heating and air-conditioning work, among a range of construction services.

"We employ about 650 people, and we know that because of the legal climate that exists, we are aware that one accident and one outrageous jury award would close the company, and all those people would lose their jobs."

Lee and other business leaders have formed a group pushing for limits on awards.

Under the proposal that Haslam is backing, non-economic damages for things like pain and suffering and loss of a loved one would be capped at $750,000. Non-economic damages for some victims of catastrophic injuries and certain death cases, such as severe burns, the death of a parent of a minor child, the loss of at least two limbs and certain spinal cord injuries, would be capped at $1 million.

Punitive damages would be capped at twice the amount of the combined economic and non-economic damages, or $500,000 – whichever is greater.

Those who oppose putting caps on damages say cases like Earl McLemore's will show how some lives are devalued under the system.

Because economic damages include lost wages, in addition to medical bills, the payout for harm to elderly people, children, housewives and minimum-wage workers isn't as much as it would be for someone earning a lot of money, some say

"In a nursing home case, all of your damages are non-economic," said Chad Trammell, an attorney who represents McLemore. "It really comes down to: How do you value the life of an elderly person?"

But Lee, the Franklin businessman, says victims will still be compensated under the proposed system.

"There are horrific things that have happened to people, and there's a clear need for damages and for compensation of victims of personal injury – no one disputes that. And this reform doesn't dispute that, either."

Opponents of changes also say Tennessee juries are notoriously conservative because, unlike in other states, all 12 must agree.

Records from the state Administrative Office of the Courts show that very few cases get that far. A little more than 5 percent of the nearly 11,000 cases across the state that concluded last year went to trial.

"One of the reasons, interestingly, most of them get settled is because there's so much risk involved for the defendant, because jury verdicts are so unpredictable," said Brian Fitzpatrick, an associate professor at the Vanderbilt University Law School. He says under the new system, people will settle cases for less money, but it could mean that some will be more willing to fight.

"One ironic consequence of tort reform," Fitzpatrick says, "could be fewer settlements and more trials, because now there's less risk."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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