, Muskogee, OK

June 8, 2013

Oklahoma lawmakers will seek to revive lawsuit limits

Associated Press

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma lawmakers will again consider legislation setting limits on lawsuits and making it easier to dismiss those that don’t have merit after the state Supreme Court struck down a 2009 law on the matter.

Legislative leaders were studying their options after the state’s highest court on Tuesday invalidated the tort reform law, ruling 7-2 it was unconstitutional because it violated the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution. The majority opinion said the legislation amounted to logrolling, or the passing of legislation that contains multiple subjects.

Among the changes the 2009 law made was redefining what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and strengthening summary judgment rules, making it easier for a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that has no merit. It also set limits on damages in some cases.

Republican Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman of Sapulpa plans to meet with Gov. Mary Fallin and other legislative leaders to decide how best to resurrect those changes in the 2014 Legislature, spokesman Nate Atkins said Friday.

“There is concern and disagreement with the ruling,” Atkins said. The Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009 received bipartisan support in the state House and Senate, a reflection of the will of Oklahomans that was swept aside by the Supreme Court’s action, he said.

“We obviously are disappointed and think that they got it wrong,” Atkins said.

One option for lawmakers next year is to break down the various sections of the legislation adopted in 2009 and consider them as separate bills. The Supreme Court’s decision said the bill contained 90 sections that encompassed a variety of subjects that do not reflect a common, closely akin theme or purpose.

“It’s seems very simple to me,” said Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City. “Just do separate bills that basically accomplish the same goal. Just break them up.”

Supporters of the legislation said it was designed to block frivolous lawsuits and reduce malpractice and liability insurance costs for doctors and businesses.

But an opponent, Guy Fortney, president of the Oklahoma Association for Justice, a coalition of trial attorneys and their clients, said the bill tramples on individual rights for the benefit of big business.

“What would really make Oklahoma good for business is a smart and educated work force,” Fortney said. “That’s why education should be this Legislature’s No. 1 priority.”

The measure changed joint and individual liability guidelines to alter so-called “deep pocket” rules that had allowed an injured person to recover all damages from any defendant, regardless of the defendant’s individual share of liability. The measure also capped pain and suffering damages at $400,000 but allowed a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury.

Fred Morgan, president and CEO of the State Chamber and a former state lawmaker who has been active in efforts to set limits on lawsuits, said he is concerned about the “overly restrictive view” the court’s majority opinion takes in its interpretation of the Oklahoma Constitution’s single-subject clause.

“I think the court has taken an incredibly restrictive view,” Morgan said. “It certainly handcuffs the Legislature.”