Oklahoma Gov. Signs Comprehensive Tort Reform Legislation

May 22, 2009

After years of wrangling between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Oklahoma over lawsuit reforms in the state, Gov. Brad Henry has signed into law tort reform legislation aimed at curbing frivolous lawsuits and reducing costs associated with the justice system.

Gov. Henry said House Bill 1603 by Rep. Dan Sullivan and Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee will help improve the legal process without impeding a citizen’s access to the courts.

The Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma have often been at odds over the issue of how to implement tort reform there.

For more than a decade House and Senate Republicans have sought to reform Oklahoma’s justice system, according to information released by the House. They say frivolous lawsuits have increased health care costs, driven talented doctors out of our state because of high malpractice insurance rates and told companies to look to more business-friendly states when considering relocation or jobs creation.

Now, “the days of Oklahoma being known as a jackpot justice state are over,” said House Speaker Chris Benge. “This legislation will change the economic landscape of our state and will say to companies that we welcome their business in Oklahoma.”

Gov. Henry said the measure “enacts reasonable and responsible reforms that improve the civil justice system without impairing a citizen’s constitutional right to have his or her legitimate grievances appropriately addressed in court.”

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, who has previously criticized the governor for his views on lawsuit reform, thanked Henry for signing the legislation, calling it “a huge day for Oklahoma.”

The American Insurance Association (AIA), an insurer trade group, praised passage of the bill, noting it was a compromise between lawmakers, business advocates, trial lawyers and doctors.

“The adoption of HB 1603 represents years of hard work to deliver common sense reform to Oklahoma’s legal system,” said John Marlow, AIA assistant vice president of state affairs.

Among other things, the bill caps non-economic damages, eliminates joint and several liability, caps appeal bonds at $25 million, and contains asbestos/silicosis reforms, while providing consumer safeguards for Oklahomans with legitimate claims.

Noneconomic damages (so-called “pain and suffering” awards) would be capped at $400,000 outside of exceptional circumstances. In rare cases involving medical malpractice where the cap is lifted, any amount greater than $400,000 could be paid with a reinsurance policy the state would purchase. The bill creates a task force that will study the details of the policy and payment options prior to implementation.

HB 1603 goes into effect Nov. 1, 2009.

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