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State Lawmakers Reach Tort Reform Compromise

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Doctors said the state's current rules of civil justice allow for too many frivolous lawsuits. [file photo] Doctors said the state's current rules of civil justice allow for too many frivolous lawsuits. [file photo]

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Compromise legislation affecting the way Oklahomans file and litigate lawsuits was unveiled Monday by Republican legislative leaders who described it as a historic agreement that will help block frivolous lawsuits and lower medical malpractice and other insurance costs.

Less than three weeks before lawmakers must adjourn the 2009 Legislature, leaders of the House and Senate announced the compromise bill forged over months of negotiations with trial attorneys and patient advocacy groups who opposed civil justice changes that might block Oklahomans' access to the courts.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said all groups had agreed to the bill's language and predicted it will be signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry, who has opposed some civil justice changes and vetoed a lawsuit reform proposal last year.

"I believe that he will sign this bill," Coffee said.

In a statement, Henry called the bill "perhaps the most comprehensive tort bill in state history" and said it is similar to the compromise proposal he made in 2007 but was unable to reach a consensus for.

"I will be reviewing the measure in greater detail in the days to come, but based on my initial reading of it, I believe this is a strong piece of reform legislation," the governor said.

"I have always supported 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. This legislation appears to strike the delicate balance required to meet those goals," he said.

Among the bill's sweeping changes are a redefining of what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and strengthening of summary judgment rules to make it easier for a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that has no merit before it goes to trial.

The bill also makes changes to joint and several liability guidelines in which an injured person can recover all his damages from any defendant regardless of their individual share of the liability.

It reinstates a certificate of merit requirement for injured people who want to file professional malpractice lawsuits but broadens it beyond a similar rule that was ruled unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2006.

That measure dealt exclusively with medical malpractice lawsuits and the high court said it was an unconstitutional special law. It also ruled the requirement that a medical malpractice claimant obtain a professional's opinion at a cost of up to $5,000 was an unconstitutional monetary barrier to the courts.

The latest proposal requires certificates in any lawsuit alleging professional negligence by physicians, attorneys, accountants and others, a requirement vetoed by Henry last year. Those who cannot afford the cost of a certificate can obtain one for free under existing pauper guidelines, officials said.

The measure would cap non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering, at $400,000 but allow a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury. Supporters had originally wanted a cap of $300,000 with no waiver guidelines.

The bill requires the state to explore the purchase of a $20 million insurance policy by May 1, 2011, to create an indemnity fund for non-economic damages in excess of $400,000.

It also makes a variety of changes to class-action lawsuit guidelines but does not include a proposal opposed by mineral owners that would require them to "opt-in" to class-action lawsuits to become eligible to recoup unpaid royalties.

Under existing law, class members are automatically included in a class-action lawsuit unless they notify the court they want to "opt out."

Coffee said he was "pleased with the agreement" although it does not contain everything he wanted.

"We look forward to the positive benefits it will bring to all Oklahomans," he said.

"The civil justice system of our state needs revamping," said Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, who helped negotiate the plan. "We look forward to getting this bill passed and the governor signing it."

"This is a good day for doctors in Oklahoma and, more importantly, their patients," said Ken King, executive director of the Oklahoma State medical Association.

Matt Latham of the Oklahoma Association for Justice said his group was primarily concerned that any new guidelines not prevent Oklahomans from having access to the courts.

"We hope that this bill does nothing to hinder that," Latham said. 

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