Lawsuit Reform Measure goes to full Senate

The Senate Rules Committee has advanced to the floor a House-originated lawsuit reform measure considered critical to the Senate Republican Jobs agenda.  The Rules Committee this week approved House Bill 2128 by a vote of 11 to 5. While Republicans cheered, a key House Democrat was critical of the measure.

 “I am pleased by the efforts of my colleagues who chose to make this critical issue a priority,” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, a Moore Republican, the bill’s Senate author. “This is a vital piece of our economic development and jobs agenda, and I appreciate the compromise that we were able to garner on the issue between the Senate and the House.”

 President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman issued the following statement regarding the bill’s exit from committee:

 “Everyone is affected by the cost of jackpot litigation.  Frivolous lawsuits increase the cost of business in Oklahoma; they increase our insurance rates, they increase medical malpractice rates and they cost our state jobs.  If we do not put real protections in place that prevent out of control lawsuits, we all pay.  We have a bold majority of Republicans in the Senate that are ready to deliver on our promise by enacting a meaningful cap on non-economic damages.”

 According to a Senate staff press release, key points of H.B. 2128 include:

 • The bill will place a cap on non-economic damages of $350,000 

 • In cases of malice, intent, or gross negligence the cap may be lifted

 • Economic damages will not be affected by the legislation 

 • The bill will uphold an individual’s right to a fair trial and preserve the jury’s discretion on all other elements of judgments; including loss of income, medical expenses or other things that could be characterized as economic damages.

 “Lawsuit reform is needed to help the state’s economy and its competitiveness with other states,” said House Speaker Kris Steele, a Shawnee Republican. “It is vital for job creation and to protect access to quality health care.”

 A House Republican release sent to CapitolBeatOK observed that currently Oklahoma does not have a cap, but a compromise bill passed two years ago would have imposed a $400,000 cap for all negligence cases. The previous cap was contingent upon creation of an indemnity fund that would pay jury awards above $400,000 with state appropriations for medical malpractice cases.

 Strongly disputing the legislation and the majority party’s characterizations of it was Rep. Mike Brown. In a press release sent to CapitolBeatOK, the Tahlequah Democrat said: 

 “Although this might sound benign in nature, what it does is limit an award amount to $350,000 for damages, while also eliminating the right of a judge or jury to remove this cap in cases where the victim suffered permanent and substantial physical abnormalities or disfigurement. The only circumstances in which a judge or jury may award a greater amount is under the following circumstances: reckless disregard for the rights of others, gross negligence, fraud or malice.”

 Rep. Brown continued, “Part of the catch here is that most insurance companies specifically exclude coverage when those four conditions are met, so even if a plaintiff met this incredibly high standard, the defendant would likely not be covered by his or her insurance policy which would leave the plaintiff to try to collect damages directly from the individual.”

 Defending the bill in his message to reporters was House Speaker Kris Steele, who said, “Unnecessary lawsuits burden our economy and impacts the business climate. Our goal is to build an environment that is business-friendly and will allow our state to flourish. We cannot reach our economic potential if doctors and businesses leave our state due to frivolous lawsuits, which drive up the cost of doing business.”

 House Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan, a Tulsa Republican, contended, “In order for Oklahoma to compete for jobs and see improvement in our economy we must pass meaningful lawsuit reform legislation immediately. We can’t afford companies fleeing Oklahoma and taking jobs as they exit. With the passage of H.B. 2128, we improve far more than just our business environment. The passage of this legislation also helps us take another step forward in our goal to improve education and our overall quality of life as result of “fewer” lawsuits that hurt our state.”

 A release from Steele’s staff asserted, “…defensive medicine contributes to skyrocketing healthcare costs. The high price of medical care coupled with a shortage of healthcare professionals leads to limited access and poor health indicators.”

 Steele concluded, “With the Senate committee passage of HB 2128, we are attempting to have fairness and balance in the civil justice system. It also improves health care by retaining doctors recruiting more health care professionals to Oklahoma.”
Note: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report