Law & Principles , Good Government

Ray Carter | February 26, 2020

Lawsuit-reform restoration advances

Ray Carter

Legislation to reinstate caps on noneconomic damages in certain lawsuits has gained approval from a Senate committee.

In an April 2019 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared a prior 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 limited 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.

Senate Joint Resolution 40, by Sen. Julie Daniels, would place the stricken reforms into the Oklahoma Constitution to remove any question of constitutionality. The measure would have to receive approval from a vote of the people to amend the Oklahoma Constitution.

“The Supreme Court declared this unconstitutional in a split decision, thereby undoing years and years of work on lawsuit reform in this state,” said Daniels, R-Bartlesville. “And so, sadly, we must ask the people of Oklahoma to reaffirm the policies put in place by their elected representatives and senators.”

When the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down caps on noneconomic damages, the court cited a provision of the Oklahoma Constitution that prohibits capping damages in wrongful death cases.

“Sadly, the court did not recognize that in the statute itself, it acknowledged the exception in our constitution that there can be no limit on any sort of damages where there is a wrongful death,” Daniels said.

She noted SJR 40 deals with caps on damages only in injury cases.

Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, objected to having a specific $350,000 cap placed in the Oklahoma Constitution, noting inflation will reduce its value over time.

“What will happen in 10 years after 10 years of inflation with that cap?” Kirt asked.

Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, raised the same concern, saying he was concerned about the impact of inflation on the cap “in 40 years.”

“Is there no way this could have been fixed through statute?” Simpson asked.

“In the end, we are faced now with trying to legislate through the Constitution because the Supreme Court has left us no other option,” Daniels replied.

SJR 40 passed the Senate Rules Committee on a party-line vote of 7-2 with Democrats in opposition.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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