Jobs-minded Civil Justice Reform in Oklahoma, A Big Vote Today

By May 14, 2009Briefly Legal

The Oklahoma Senate is set today to debate H.B. 1603, the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act, attempting to bring a measure of predictability and reasonable costs to the state’s civil justice system. Tort reform has been a controversial topic for several years now in Oklahoma, especially after Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, campaigned in support of civil justice reform and then vetoed legislation to accomplish it in 2007. (See posts.)

The State Chamber of Oklahoma, a leading advocate of the bill, notes what’s at stake — jobs:

While Texas was once a hotbed of lawsuit mania, in 2003 they enacted a wide array of reforms which restored balance to the state’s legal system, restrained rapacious personal injury lawyers, and spurred economic opportunity. The results speak for themselves. Texas now has the best business climate in the nation according to Site Selection Magazine. Not surprisingly, the state also has the highest number of job creation announcements.

The Chamber has provided a copy of the conference report summarizing the legislation here, and the bill’s text is here.

For a good summary and an argument in support, see this Daily Oklahoman editorial, “Agreement could put issue behind lawmakers.”

One of Henry’s chief objections to the 2007 bill was its $300,000 cap on non-economic damages (pain and suffering). The new language includes a $400,000 cap, but that can be waived in cases of catastrophic injury or gross negligence. In medical liability cases, payments above $400,000 will come from an indemnity fund to be created by a task force.

This latest proposal redefines what makes up a frivolous lawsuit and gives judges more latitude to dismiss lawsuits they believe don’t have merit. The agreement also includes changes to joint-and-several liability rules, which should mean individuals or entities that are only partly liable for a tort claim aren’t made to pay as much as those most responsible.

There are also important provisions setting standards for expert witnesses, as well as requiring certificates of merit for lawsuits charging professional negligence — a key factor in controlling medical malpractice costs.

Governor Henry seems on board, quoted in this Tulsa World editorial, “A balance: Tort reform appears reasonable,” as calling the bill “perhaps the most comprehensive tort bill in state history” that “appears to strike the delicate balance” necessary for reforms that preserve the public’s right to it day in court.

The World concludes, “Tort reform has been one of the most fractious debates of the past 20 years…
It’s time to move forward.” Right.

UPDATE: (More at TortsProf Blog)

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