Senate passes ‘loser pays’ bill on lawsuits

By Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The state Senate passed a bill that would force people who sue state employees or elected officials to pay legal fees if they fail in a lawsuit.

Supporters say the bill (HB1679) would prevent frivolous lawsuits from being filed and save taxpayers money. Opponents argue that it would discourage people from bringing legitimate claims against officials, especially sexual harassment claims.

The Tennessee Bar Association opposed the legislation, arguing that it would have a chilling effect when it comes to citizens suing government officials.

Mike Bell, R-Riceville, argued on the Senate floor that all it would do is protect state employees from frivolous lawsuits.

“Simply put, this bill represents the right thing to do to protect both the state workers and the Tennessee taxpayers.” Bell and Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, were the primary sponsors.

Lawmakers said State Attorney General Herbert Slatery had championed the bill.

Democrats opposed the bill and Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, fought unsuccessfully to put an amendment on the legislation that would have exempted state and local public officials, as well as the governor’s cabinet and staff. Yarbro said that lawmakers shouldn’t be insulating themselves from lawsuits. Opponents had also argued that just because someone loses a lawsuit doesn’t mean it is frivolous.

The measure would force people to pay legal fees if they lose or voluntarily dismiss a lawsuit against either a state or local official if that person is sued personally, and not in an official capacity.

Government workers and public officials are often sued in their individual capacity when there are claims of sexual harassment or racial discrimination, said Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the state bar association.

The legislation comes as both the state attorney general’s office and a House committee investigate Rep. Jeremy Durham following allegations that he sent inappropriate text messages to women who worked in the Legislature. Durham has denied any wrongdoing.

Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville; Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro voted against the bill.

The House previously passed the bill on a 69-16 vote, but would have to agree to a Senate rewrite of the bill before the measure could head to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk.