Law & Principles
Ray Carter | February 7, 2020
Voters may get chance to pass lawsuit reform
To address problems created by an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling issued last year, state voters could be given the opportunity to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to cap noneconomic damages under legislation awaiting a vote this session.
In a split decision issued last April, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared a cap on noneconomic “pain and suffering” damage awards was an unconstitutional special law. The ruling struck down a key reform long sought by business leaders and doctors that had been in place since 2011.
The court decision struck down a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages that applied in many, but not all, circumstances. The law did not cap damages for actual economic losses or medical expenses, and the cap on noneconomic damages did not apply when a defendant was shown to have acted in reckless disregard for others or with malice.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association has declared the cap on noneconomic damages to be an important tool to “reduce liability costs and promote access to care in the state” because it reduces the cost of medical liability insurance.
Business leaders also said the cap is important to preserving financial stability for Oklahoma companies, and the head of the State Chamber of Oklahoma said the ruling was “a decision by an activist judiciary that has been hostile to letting the Legislature set those caps.”
At the time of the court ruling, Gov. Kevin Stitt said there would “be some more reforms that should be passed in the future,” and that he and legislative leaders would be “looking at all options.”
At least one major piece of legislation has been filed this year to address the court’s ruling.
Senate Joint Resolution 40, by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, would reinstate the cap on noneconomic damages via a proposed amendment to the Oklahoma Constitution. The provisions of SJR 40 are largely identical to the language of the law struck down by the court, but the resolution would place that language in the Oklahoma Constitution to remove legal uncertainty.
To take effect, the resolution must pass the Oklahoma Legislature and then win voter approval at the ballot box.
In the meantime, the impact of the court’s ruling continues to harm Oklahoma’s business reputation. In July 2019, a few months after the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down caps on noneconomic damages, the American Tort Reform Foundation (ATRF) announced that Oklahoma now ranks among the nation’s 10 worst “judicial hellholes,” a reversal from prior years of progress. Among the factors cited was the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling on noneconomic caps.
ATRF wrote that the Oklahoma Supreme Court “abandoned established legal precedent” in declaring the cap on damages to be an unconstitutional special law.
“In doing so, the court became an outlier,” ATRF stated, “as a majority of courts, both state and federal, have found these statutory limits to be constitutional.”
ATRF called the decision “a blatant overreach by the court.”
“Most courts have respected the prerogative of legislatures to enact reasonable limits on awards for pain and suffering,” ATRF stated, “Unfortunately, the Oklahoma Supreme Court did not.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.