Lowering the Bar

Although tort reform has gained wide attention on the national scene, it is not a front-burner issue in Tennessee. A new organization hopes to change that.

Besides tort reform legislation, Tennesseans for Legal Reform plans to initiate legal reform legislation in the state and back federal legislation. Medical malpractice legislation, now on the plate of the Tennessee General Assembly, will be at the forefront of the organization’s efforts.

Tort reform endeavors on the local and national level have the goal of curtailing costly litigation and classaction lawsuits. The efforts are mainly opposed by trial lawyers.

“We didn’t have one organization to kind of take the lead and run,” says Darren Morris, executive director of Tennesseans for Legal Reform and a registered lobbyist for the group. “There’s never been a tort reform association of any type in Tennessee.”

Morris runs Darren Morris & Associates LLC, a political consulting, public relations, advertising and strategic communications firm, which is starting its loth .year of operation. It has offices in Nashville and Washington, D.C. Morris has been involved in more than 45 political campaigns, and his client list includes U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, Bush-Cheney 2000, Alexander for President, Microsoft and AT&T.

Morris’ company also has two subsidiaries. Morris Agency handles political campaigns and corporate advertising, while Tennessee Public Affairs is the lobbying, government relations and coalition building arm and is involved in grassroots efforts such as Tennesseans for Legal Reform.

Morris has a paid retainer with Tennesseans for Legal Reform. Morris says his efforts have concentrated on areas outside of Nashville initially because the legislature will not convene a tort reform study committee until this summer and there will not be any new bills introduced on tort reform until the next legislative session in January.

“We really looked at it from a political campaign standpoint,” says Morris.

The group has organized in every congressional district, every state senate district and every state representative district.

Tort reform became a hot issue in litigious Alabama before spreading to Mississippi. Morris expects it to move to other states.

“Anytime a state passes reform, the trial bar and plaintiff bar who are looking to do these lawsuits find another state to go into,” he says. “Right now the big one is Illinois, because the tobacco lawsuit is on right now. Tennessee is going to be the place to go if we don’t do these caps.”

Tennesseans for Legal Reform currently has about 600 members. Membership dues varies from $50 to $20,000, depending upon an individual’s or company’s ability to pay. The organization’s budget this year is $250,000. Morris expects the budget will be much larger next year to handle such things as public education and direct mail efforts.

Morris says fundraising for Tennesseans for Legal Reform is going well. By the start of the next legislative session, the organization hopes to hire lobbyists. Political and financial support is coming from large corporations, small businesses, physicians, insurance companies and agents, manufacturers, restaurateurs and state associations.

Backup support is coming from national organizations, such as the American Tort Reform Association, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, the American Medical Association, PhRMA, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, and the National Federation of Independent Business. The national organizations may provide tort reform educational opportunities for those on the state committee.

Bobby Joslin, owner of Joslin Sign Co. who is on NFIB’s state leadership council and is a member of Tennesseans for Legal Reform’s small business advisory committee, says the NFIB has been concerned about tort reform for many moons.

“It’s been an obstacle and it’s been a thorn in our sides for many years,” he says.

Joslin says the high cost of health care is the NFIB’s No. 1 concern and it is eating up the bottom line of small businesses and eliminating jobs. He says the large number of tort cases is a big reason why health care costs are so high.

“Seventy percent of all medical lawsuits wind up resulting in absolutely no payment, yet somebody has to defend that at a huge cost,” says Joslin.

Name: Tennesseans for Legal Reform

Address: P.O. Box 111568, Nashville 37222

Phone: 615-661-6191

Web site: www.TNLegalReform.com