How Much Can a Jury Award in a Medical Malpractice Lawsuit in Oklahoma?
Is there a cap on how much can be awarded?
I did a brief survey recently of what some other law firm websites in Oklahoma say about caps on medical malpractice awards. What a hodge-podge of information! For example, some of our colleagues say that the cap on noneconomic damages is $300,000, some say $350,000, and some say $400,000.
There are two reasons for the confusion. One is that some websites are out-of-date. Our website, OklahomaLawyer.com, has more than one thousand pages of legal information. Believe me, it takes a lot of hard work to maintain up-to-date information on our webpages and blog.
Another reason for the conflicting information is that Oklahoma laws on medical malpractice have changed frequently during the last 12 years. Let’s get right to the most up-to-date information available.
Four Kinds of Damages
In a civil suit in Oklahoma for damages resulting from malpractice by a doctor, hospital or other health provider, there are four kinds of claims for damages that a plaintiff can make.
* Economic damages. Economic damages include medical bills (past and future), lost income (past and future), and any other financial losses that have resulted from the malpractice. There is no limit or cap on the amount of economic damages a plaintiff can be awarded.
* Noneconomic damages. In addition, a plaintiff may seek non-economic damages for such harms and losses as pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of consortium (loss of the benefits of having a spouse). Oklahoma’s current cap on noneconomic damages is $350,000.
However, there are exceptions to that rule which allow higher noneconomic damage awards. The exceptions are cases in which the defendant showed gross negligence, reckless disregard to the rights of others, fraudulence, or intentional, malicious conduct.
* Punitive (exemplary) damages. In the most egregious cases of medical malpractice, a jury may award punitive damages in addition to the economic and noneconomic damages. The cap on punitive damages is $100,000 — or a punitive award equal to the amount of actual damages, if that amount is more than $100,000.
However, if the jury finds that intentional, malicious wrongdoing occurred, a punitive damage award of up to $500,000 is allowed. And if it is determined that the patient’s life was endangered by the malpractice, there is no cap on damages.
* Wrongful Death. If a death resulted from the wrong actions of a medical provider, then the patient’s family and/or heirs are entitled to pursue a wrongful death claim (Oklahoma Statutes, Title 12, Section 1053). There is no cap on the award for a wrongful death claim.
Reason for the Confusion
The Oklahoma Affordable Health Care Act was adopted in 2003 and 2004. It placed a cap of $300,000 on noneconomic damages. Some parts of that law were set up to terminate in 2010.
In 2009, Oklahoma adopted “tort reform,” called the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act (Oklahoma Statutes Title 23, Section 61.2). That act set a cap on noneconomic damages of $400,000. In 2011, the act was amended to lower the cap on noneconomic damages to $350,000.
Then in 2013, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act to be unconstitutional. (Here’s our blog post on that Supreme Court ruling). However, it ruled that the 2011 amendment made that part of the act constitutional. So, the current cap on noneconomic damages remains at $350,000.
In recent years, several state Supreme Courts have struck down caps on medical malpractice damages. Those states are Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon and Washington.
It is certainly possible that Oklahoma’s current $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages will also be struck down. Maybe it will even be amended.
The argument in favor of tort reform was that lawsuits were driving up the cost of insurance premiums for doctors and hospitals, who in turn passed those costs on to patients in the form of higher medical bills. Oklahoma has now had a cap of varying levels on noneconomic damages for 12 years. Have doctors seen their insurance premiums come down? Have patients seen their medical costs come down?
I’d love to hear from one doctor, patient or tort reformer who can identify a lower premium or medical bill than can be attributed to Oklahoma’s noneconomic damages cap.
If you or a loved one has received medical care that you believe constitutes malpractice or wrongful death, you need to know your legal rights. Contact Hasbrook and Hasbrook for a free consultation.
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