Oklahoma Tort reform bill stalls

Chris Rizo Apr. 29, 2008, 2:50pm

Rex Duncan

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (Legal Newsline)-Oklahoma state lawmakers have jettisoned a rewrite to a comprehensive tort overhaul amid a tepid political climate.

The proposal would have asked voters whether to cap attorney contingency fees at 33 percent instead of 50 percent in personal injury cases.

State Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, said while he supported the original intent to pass, among other things, class action reforms, he said he opposes efforts to cap what lawyers may charge clients.

"Whenever the Legislature engages in a practice when it decides what a profession, entity or individual can charge in a free market, it is socialism," Duncan told Legal Newsline.

Duncan, chairman of the House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said setting a cap would "interfere" with an attorney's ability to contract with their clients, "negates the idea of competition" in the marketplace and is "thinly veiled lawyer bashing."

State lawmakers originally sought to cap non-economic damages at $300,000 and require potential members of a class action to opt into participation in the lawsuit.

The legislation, long sought by tort reformers, also would have included a joint and several liability provision that would require monetary judgments to be issued based on who is at fault rather than which of the defendants can afford to pay the award.

The bill, once it reached a full House vote last week, the 120-page bill was amended to just place on the ballot a proposal to cap contingency fees in personal injury cases.

State Rep. Daniel Sullivan, R-Tulsa, was the House sponsor of Senate Bill 156.

Under an amendment he offered to help gain support for the proposal, contingency fees would have been limited to no more than 33 percent for the first $1 million awarded in a tort case, and to 20 percent of any amount awarded exceeding $1 million.

A similar bill cleared the state Legislature last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Brad Henry, who said the bill would have impeded Oklahomans' access to justice.

Current Oklahoma law prohibits attorneys from claiming more than 50 percent of a jury award as an attorney fee.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo by e-mail at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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