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Report: Fixing Okla. tort reform law could take 28 bills, more than a week in special session

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Aug 26, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY (Legal Newsline) -- It likely will take more than two dozen bills to rewrite Oklahoma's tort system, state lawmakers say.

House Speaker T.W. Shannon told The Journal Record last week that a rewrite would take 26 to 28 bills.

Doing so would require lawmakers to spend at least six days, if not 10, in special session next month, Shannon said Friday.

Earlier this month, Gov. Mary Fallin issued an executive order calling for a special session to begin Sept. 3.

The executive order calls on lawmakers to re-institute components of House Bill 1603, a lawsuit reform package signed into law in 2009.

It was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by then-Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat.

In its June 4 opinion, a majority of the Oklahoma Supreme Court said the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act violates the single subject rule in the state constitution and is unconstitutional "logrolling." "Logrolling" is the passing of legislation containing multiple subjects.

The reform package included class action reforms, a cap on appeals bonds, adoption of summary judgment similar to that allowed in federal lawsuits, joint and several liability reforms, product liability reforms, junk science testimony rules, certificates of merit and a cap on non-economic damages.

The law aimed to curb frivolous lawsuits and reduce court costs.

"This bill is unconstitutional and void in its entirety," the Supreme Court's order stated.

Justice Noma Gurich explained that the law's 90 sections do not reflect a common theme.

Fallin, a Republican, called on lawmakers to separate the law into appropriate bills, thus reinstating the policy without violating the single subject rule.

"Oklahoma's lawsuit reform measures are part of what makes this state attractive to businesses and attractive to retaining and recruiting doctors," the governor said in a statement earlier this month. "Those laws are now under attack."

She continued, "In the weeks since the court ruled our laws unconstitutional, at least a dozen lawsuits have been reopened against hospitals, doctors and other employers. As lawmakers, we need to act now to protect our businesses and our medical community from frivolous lawsuits and skyrocketing legal costs."

Fallin said the alternative to a special session could mean delaying a potential fix for a full year.

"If we do not act now, we may not see a legislative fix implemented until August or even November of next year," she said. "It is important to address this issue immediately and with a singular focus.

"The alternative is to allow Oklahoma's business climate and job market to erode."

Fallin pointed out that those interested in affordable health care should be particularly interested in passing lawsuit reform legislation immediately.

"Legal costs and predatory lawsuits are a driver of rising health care costs," she explained. "If we allow the floodgates to be opened for a host of new medical malpractice suits, health care premiums will rise and health care will become less affordable.

"It's important -- for both the health of Oklahoma families and their economic bottom line -- to act now and prevent lawsuits from pushing the costs of medical care even higher."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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