High Court Strikes Down Oklahoma Tort Reform Law
Oklahoma’s controversial 2009 tort reform law has been declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling. However, measures in 2011 that capped non-economic damages and implemented other restrictions on tort claims remain on the books.
Oklahoma’s highest court ruled that the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act violated the state constitution’s “single subject rule,” which prohibits “logrolling.” Logrolling is the practice of addressing multiple subjects in a single piece of legislation to get less popular laws on the books by combining them with more popular measures. The Lawsuit Reform Act contains 90 sections, which, according to the court’s majority opinion, “encompas[s] a variety of subjects that do not reflect a common, closely akin theme or purpose.”
The law included a cap on awards for non-economic damages such as “pain and suffering” and “emotional distress.” However, a 2011 law which installed a $350,000 cap on non-economic damages remains in effect.
When Gov. Brad Henry signed the Lawsuit Reform Act into law in 2009, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed the measure as “a blueprint for all states still in need of tort reform.” However, the court’s ruling sends Oklahoma’s own lawmakers back to the drawing board.
Among the many provisions of the stricken law are guidelines requiring a certificate of merit for professional negligence lawsuits, limitations on recovery from “deep-pocket” defendants, and more novel provisions, such as protection for restaurants and food manufacturers against obesity lawsuits. Lawmakers who want to restore the stricken elements of the law will have to do so in a series of separate measures rather than another “comprehensive” bill.
The ruling is a setback for tort reform advocates, who believe the law made Oklahoma a more favorable environment for physicians and businesses. It is a victory for opponents of tort reform, who believe the law primarily benefited insurance companies at the expense of average citizens who have suffered damages.
One effect of the ruling will be to keep tort reform in the Oklahoma headlines for the foreseeable future, after dominating the news in 2009 and 2011. Some lawmakers have already announced that they will introduce bills in the 2014 legislative session to reinstate the stricken guidelines.
The decision was issued in response to a Tulsa County suit by the family of a man who alleged negligence when the man died after receiving treatment at a rehabilitative care center. The lower court dismissed the suit, ruling that it did not comply with the guidelines of the 2009 law. The Supreme Court has reinstated the case and remanded it back to Tulsa County District Court.