In a split decision issued Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared a cap on noneconomic “pain and suffering” damage awards is an unconstitutional special law. The ruling, which strikes down a key reform long sought by business leaders and doctors, drew a sharp response from Senate leadership.
Under a law passed in 2011, a cap on noneconomic damages is set at $350,000 in most, but not all, circumstances. The law did not cap damages that could be awarded for actual economic losses or medical expenses, and the cap on noneconomic damages did not apply in cases where a defendant is shown to have acted in reckless disregard for others or with malice.
The plaintiff, Todd Beason, suffered an on-the-job accident that cost him parts of his arm after a boom from a crane fell and hit him. An Oklahoma County jury awarded $14 million to Beason and $1 million to his wife, Dara. The jurors signed a “supplemental verdict form” saying $5 million of the $14 million award given Beason was for noneconomic damages, which far exceeded the cap, as did the award to his wife, which a judge found was entirely for noneconomic damages.
As a result, Beason’s jury award was lowered to $9.7 million. The Beasons then filed a legal challenge to the cap on noneconomic awards.
The Oklahoma Constitution forbids passage of “special laws” in which part of similarly affected persons are targeted for different treatment. The court majority ruled the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages was a “special law.”
“The failing of the statute is that it purports to limit recovery for pain and suffering in cases where the plaintiff survives the injury-causing event, while persons who die from the injury-causing event face no such limitation,” the ruling declared.
In cases where someone is killed, a lawsuit can be filed seeking damages that include payment for the mental pain-and-suffering experienced by the deceased, the court majority noted.
“The shared experience of everyday life teaches that a collapsing brick wall can inflict bodily injuries on one person that result in death and bodily injuries on another person that do not result in death, and that the resulting pain and suffering in each case can be substantially the same,” the opinion said. “Pain and suffering do not vary depending upon the source of the collapse and do not care if the source of the collapse is the result of a tornado, an earthquake, a terrorist act, intentional conduct, negligent design, or strict-liability activity. Culpability or lack of culpability has no bearing whatsoever on the extent of the suffering a victim—deceased or surviving—sustains.”
The majority continued, “By forbidding limits on recovery for injuries resulting in death, the people have left it to juries to determine the amount of compensation for pain and suffering in such cases, and no good reason exists for the Legislature to provide a different rule for the same detriment simply because the victim survives the harm-causing event,” the opinion declared.
In two dissents, other justices warned the majority’s ruling could have far-reaching consequences.
In a dissent, Justice James R. Winchester said the majority ruling is “contrary to other legislative acts which incorporate caps, such as the Worker's Compensation Act and the Governmental Tort Claims Act.” He wrote that a special law “is one that relates to particular persons or things of a class, in contrast with a general law which applies to ALL persons or things of a class.”
“The majority manufactures a subclass that is reliant on the plaintiff's survivability despite acknowledging that the Legislature is expressly prohibited from imposing a non-economic damages cap in wrongful death actions,” Winchester wrote.
As a result, he said the “impermissible” class “concocted by the majority is a constitutional impossibility” and cannot serve as the basis to declare the law unconstitutional. Winchester further concluded the cap on noneconomic damages “applies equally to ALL plaintiffs with a claimed bodily injury.”
Justice James Edmondson, in a separate dissent, bluntly declared that “the Oklahoma Legislature's constitutional function includes creating, abolishing, and defining a legal cause of action, and this function includes creating a cap on damages for a cause of action, unless prohibited by a provision of the Oklahoma or U.S. Constitutions. No claim by plaintiffs herein shows any provision of those Constitutions acting to prohibit the Oklahoma Legislature from creating” the cap on noneconomic damages.
“Torts do die, they are not eternal, and sometimes the means of their demise are legislative enactments,” Edmondson wrote (emphasis in original). “When a tort dies from legislative abolishment it is not the role of an appellate court to resurrect it because an individual has suffered an injury.”
Edmondson warned (emphasis in original), “Plaintiffs’ claim is broad enough to challenge any legislatively-created damage cap unless specifically approved in the Constitution …”
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, quickly criticized the ruling in a statement and indicated constitutional amendments may be pursued in response.
“The Supreme Court has previously demonstrated its dislike of lawsuit reform, and when the court doesn’t like a law they fall back to their old standby of using ‘special law’ or ‘single-subject rule’ to throw out constitutionally sound bills,” Treat said. “If the Supreme Court can’t apply these standards in a consistent basis, then perhaps the Legislature should look at remedies that would bring uniformity to the application of these important provisions of the state constitution.”