Long before Thom Tillis was a mountain-biking crusader for tort reform, the North Carolina GOP Senate nominee was a badly injured 17-year-old plaintiff in a lawsuit over a car accident.Just before 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 3, 1978, Tillis was driving his then-girlfriend and future ex-wife down a street in Nashville, Tennessee, when 16-year-old Patricia Duncan took a left turn into his 1978 Ford. Duncan had only been driving for two months and didn’t realize that she didn’t have the right of way to make a left on a green light. As John Hollins, Tillis’ lawyer in the case, described it, “She just turned right in front of him and caused the accident.”The accident left Tillis, according to court documents, with a “35% permanent partial disability.” Hollins, who noted that the disability ratings came from doctors, said, “I can’t remember if he limped at all, but he got a pretty severe injury.” Tillis had a very good case, Hollins said, pointing out that fewer cases were settled then and that, knowing the defendant’s lawyer, “he would have tried the case if he had a damn chance to win it.”Tillis, despite the prognosis, was able to make a full recovery. Daniel Keylin, a spokesman for the Republican’s campaign, told The Daily Beast: “The injuries were serious, requiring surgery on Tillis’ hand and a lengthy recovery for full range of motion in his back. Now more than 35 years later, he has made a full recovery, but at the time it was feared—and expected—the injuries would leave lasting effects.”Since then Tillis, who is currently within the margin of error against one-term incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, has become an ardent fan of extreme sports such as mountain biking and wakeboarding. In the process he has suffered several new injuries, including “a broken collarbone and two split helmets.” His passion for mountain biking is so strong that his first run for office was inspired by a desire for a new bike trail in the woods near his home.
Tillis’ 1978 lawsuit wasn’t just about his injuries, however. Much of his case for damages hinged on the claim that the resulting injury left him unable to take advantage of an Air Force scholarship to attend college. In his complaint, Tillis alleged that while he “still desires to go to college, having lost his scholarship, he has been without the funds to do so.” Keylin echoed that argument, saying: “The injuries sustained in the accident prevented him from pursuing his path to the Air Force, which obviously impacted the trajectory of his life. Instead he immediately entered the private sector, where he worked hard and enjoyed early success in emerging technology sectors.” That doesn’t entirely jibe with a statement by Tillis to The Charlotte Observer in 2011, when he said he wasn’t “wired to go to college.” Eventually, the Republican graduated from college in his 30s via a long-distance program run by the University of Maryland’s University College and built a successful career in business as a consultant for IBM and PriceWaterhouseCooper.
Because the accident took place 25 years before Tillis entered politics, Keylin played down its role in shaping the candidate’s political views. “It’s important to point out that this accident occurred when Thom Tillis was 17 years old,” Keylin told The Daily Beast. “Obviously, he had not yet served in the General Assembly and likely had not spent much time pondering the importance of tort reform. However, in pursuing such reforms more than three decades later, it showed how important it is to crack down on frivolous lawsuits (which his case was not) and ensure that the process is more consistent and more efficient for everyone involved.”
As only the third Republican speaker of the North Carolina House since Reconstruction, Tillis pushed for tort reform in his debate, passing a bill that would cap noneconomic damages in medical malpractice cases. He also opposed efforts to repeal North Carolina’s contributory negligence law, under which a plaintiff who was even 1 percent responsible for his or her injuries would recover nothing in a lawsuit. It’s worth noting that though Tennessee has since abandoned contributory negligence, it was law in the Volunteer State at the time of Tillis’ car accident.