Lawsuit reform becomes law in Oklahoma

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 13, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY (Legal Newsline) - Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin last week signed into law a series of lawsuit reform measures that aim to create more jobs, keep jobs in the state and improve access to medical care.

The reform package includes three different bills: House Bill 2128, Senate Bill 862 and Senate Bill 865, all three of which were signed into law April 6.

HB 2128 places a $350,000 hard cap on non-economic damages.

Caps on non-economic damages have been proven to help create jobs and lower medical liability insurance premiums in other states, the governor said.

Fallin points to a 2008 study of Texas. After the state implemented non-economic damage caps, it created 223,700 jobs, increased annual consumer and business spending by $55.3 billion and grew state revenues by $1.4 billion.

That same study, Fallin said, also reported that medical liability insurance premiums decreased by 21.3 percent in Texas, and the number of lawsuits filed against the state's hospitals decreased by 70 percent.

Not including Oklahoma, 30 states have now placed similar hard caps on non-economic damages, the governor's office said.

HB 2128 will not impact economic damages, such as lost wages, medical expenses and future losses of expected wages. The bill also includes an exception to the cap in cases of malicious conduct, gross negligence and reckless disregard.

SB 862 eliminates joint and several liability, where each and every defendant in a tort lawsuit is liable for the entire amount of a plaintiff's damage regardless of their degree of fault.

The bill, Fallin says, ensures that plaintiffs seek defendants who are most at fault rather than defendants with the most financial assets.

The final measure, SB 865, requires that juries be instructed in civil cases that no part of an award for damages for personal injury or wrongful death is subject to federal or state income tax; and the jury should not consider income taxes when determining a proper compensation award.

"At the beginning of the year, I asked our Legislature to work with me to do everything we can to create more jobs and build a better environment for doing business in Oklahoma," Fallin said in a statement.

Lawsuit reform, she said, was at the top of the list.

"For too long, inflated legal fees have been an unnecessary cost-driver in the private sector and a burden on the medical community. As a result, we've seen businesses and doctors choose to locate in other states, depriving our citizens of good jobs, reducing access to medical care and driving up the costs for medical treatment.

"I'm thrilled to be able to sign into law measures which will directly address skyrocketing legal fees, protect our doctors and help to bring more jobs and businesses into Oklahoma while still protecting the rights of plaintiffs and those who have suffered injuries," Fallin said.

The bills will take effect Nov. 1.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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