Oklahoma Supreme Court Tosses Non-Economic Damages Cap

April 24, 2019

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on April 23 struck down a state law that caps monetary damages for pain and suffering in personal injury lawsuits, the latest civil justice measure backed by the Republican-controlled Legislature to be invalidated by the state’s highest court.

In a sharply divided opinion, the court ruled that a civil justice statute adopted in 2011 that limited non-economic damages in personal injury lawsuits to $350,000 is an unconstitutional special law that treats people who survive injuries differently than those who do not. The state constitution prohibits caps on damages for injuries that cause death, the ruling stated.

“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,” according to the opinion in which five of the court’s nine justices concurred.

The decision involves a lawsuit filed by a worker whose left arm was amputated following an accident at an oil well site near Wheeler, Texas, according to his attorney, Ed Abel of Oklahoma City. James Todd Beason was struck by a boom from a crane operated by an employee of Louisiana-based I.E. Miller Services, Inc. in March 2012.

An Oklahoma County jury in 2015 awarded Beason and his wife a total of $15 million, including $6 million for pain and suffering. A judge then reduced the jury award on non-economic damages to $700,000 — $350,000 for each of the Beasons — in order to comply with the law.

“The court just cut the non-economic damages value,” Abel said. “Some of the jurors were tremendously mad. The jury didn’t know there was any cap on it.”

In invalidating the law, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial judge with instructions to enter judgment in the full amount of the jury’s verdict.

An attorney for I.E. Miller Services, Robert Todd Goolsby, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. Attorney General Mike Hunter’s office, which defended the statute, declined comment on the ruling.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the State Chamber of Oklahoma, had urged the court to uphold the cap, arguing that non-economic damages are unpredictable and often excessive.

Fred Morgan, president and CEO of the State Chamber, said capping non-economic damages is the Legislature’s prerogative. Morgan said the decision reflects judicial activism in an attempt to “usurp power from the Legislature.”

The cap is among several civil justice reform measures supported by the GOP-controlled Legislature that have been invalidated by the Supreme Court in recent years.

In 2009, the court struck down a sweeping civil justice bill, ruling that it contained more than one subject in violation of the constitution. Lawmakers convened a special session in 2013 to re-enact elements of the legislation.

Last year, the court struck down a state workers’ compensation law that exempted oil and gas well operators and owners from lawsuits when a worker is killed or injured on the job.

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