Our Constitution Protects Us from the Government Deciding the Value of Lives

August 2nd, 2019 by Attorney John Colvin

What Is The Civil Justice Act?

The Civil Justice Act was passed in 2011 by Tennessee lawmakers after special interest groups and their powerful and well-connected lobbyists pushed for an act that they simply labeled as a “cap on damages.”  While a “cap on damages” sounds like something to protect one from harm, make no mistake the damages referred to are the harm done to people, and the act does nothing to limit the harm. Instead, the act limits recovery and accountability. The special- interest groups and their army of lobbyists that descended upon our Tennessee State Capitol promised Tennessee legislators savings on insurance with the passage of the act. However, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners reports that our Tennessee Insurance rates have not decreased but have risen as much as the rest of the Country.

The Goal: Accountability Over Profits

A recent editorial appearing in newspapers across our state reminds us that forty years ago automotive executives sold cars with gas tanks that caught fire in even low speed accidents. The executives knew about the danger before the cars hit the market. They decided it was more profitable to settle court cases when people died than to install safety equipment to prevent fires. The cost of that safety equipment was about $10 per car. Juries told the executives that putting profits over people’s lives was unacceptable. Not only do we see this mindset in the manufacturing of products, but even in nursing homes when nursing home executives raise profits by cutting their nursing staff, even below the minimum under federal regulations. Fewer caregivers translates into less time to provide patient care resulting in increased patient harm. Again, it is juries that are enshrined by our Constitution to hold this mindset accountable.

Fighting Against Legislation

The mindset of calculating profits by predicting the cost of hurting people is exactly what the so-called “Civil Justice Act” enables.  The act targets victims who suffered extraordinary harm. It does not care if the victim is a 19-year old breadwinner who has lost both legs or a single mother who cannot care for her young children because she is now confined to a hospital bed.  Where harm is worst, the act protects wrongdoers from full accountability.  Such is especially true in the story of Trent Roberts, who died in 2013 at the age of 24 due to what investigators called a defectively manufactured tire on a church bus. Investigators laid blame on a Hankook Tire that the manufacturer knew was defective and resulted in the death of Trent Roberts and seven others.  Hankook Tire, based in South Korea, found legal protection in the Tennessee Civil Justice Act 2011 since their American Headquarters are in Nashville, Tennessee.  Trent’s parents, Bobby and Cathy Roberts, who are successful Knoxville business owners have continued to fight against the Tennessee Legislation that limits, or “caps” the amount of damages corporations and businesses face despite what a jury decides. The law protects even those engaging in bad behavior or corporate irresponsibility that causes or leads to injuries or even death. The Roberts remind those that will listen to their story that the Civil Justice Act “targets real victims who have suffered real harm. The juries have been taken out of the equation.” Trent’s mom goes on to state that “juries, not special interest groups, should decide what restitution should be paid.”  Cathy Roberts’ statement is especially powerful given her family’s loss and the fact that the law she and her husband continue to fight against is a law touted by insurers and pro-business lobbyists as a way to lure business to Tennessee. The Roberts being business owners themselves, ask whether “businesses that move here because of these caps, is that the kind of businesses that we want to attract?”

The Right To a Jury Trial Cannot Be Violated

As citizens we must be protected from government deciding the value of human lives at the bidding of corporations, lobbyists and out of state interests. The Constitution grants limited powers to the government and guarantees certain rights to us as citizens in order to protect us against abuse by an overreaching government. One right enshrined in our Constitution is that we as citizens will be judged by our peers, not by government officials. That is why our Constitution explicitly states that the right to a jury trial cannot be violated.

Up For Review

The Tennessee Supreme Court is due to review the Civil Justice Act. Hopefully, our Supreme Court will join other states that have decided laws like the Civil Justice Act violate constitutional rights. Let’s stand together and keep our constitutional rights, like the right to a jury trial, from being taken away by special interest groups who have decided that the government knows better than its citizens.

Licensed to Practice in Tennessee & Alabama