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New State Laws Go Into Effect

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Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Almost 200 pieces of legislation passed by the Oklahoma Legislature last spring become law Sunday, including measures that change the way Oklahomans file and litigate lawsuits, promote wind energy and make health care more available and affordable for the uninsured.

But an anti-abortion measure that received overwhelming support from state lawmakers will not be going into effect. The bill, which would have required doctors who perform abortions to report information on women who seek the procedure, was blocked in October by an Oklahoma County judge.

District Judge Twyla Mason Gray issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the measure from being enforced after a lawsuit filed on behalf of two Oklahoma women alleged the bill violated a constitutional requirement that legislative measures deal only with one subject.

Besides the new abortion reporting requirements, the measure also prohibits abortions based on the gender of the fetus, redefines several abortion-related terms and creates new reporting responsibilities for several state agencies.

The measures going into effect on Nov. 1 are among more than 2,500 bills that were filed in the state House and Senate prior to the start of the 2009 Legislature in February. Other measures went into effect on July 1 or immediately after they were signed into law by Gov. Brad Henry. Still others will go into effect on Jan. 1.

"In spite of a national recession, we had several huge accomplishments for the people of Oklahoma this year that will work to improve our state for years to come," said Oklahoma House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa.

"We plan to build on these accomplishments as we get ready to head into legislative session next February."

Supporters of a new law that makes significant changes to Oklahoma's civil justice system say it will block frivolous lawsuits and reduce malpractice and liability insurance costs for doctors and businesses.

The so-called "tort reform" bill was backed by Republican legislative leaders who called it the most comprehensive bill affecting the state's legal system in state history.

A coalition of consumer advocacy groups and attorneys who specialize in medical malpractice and product liability cases initially fought the bill, arguing that it would block Oklahomans' access to the state's courts.

The measure eventually received bipartisan support in the House and Senate after a compromise was reached following months of negotiations between GOP legislative leaders, trial attorneys and patient advocacy groups.

"It's a commonsense compromise that will still protect people's ability to go to court," said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, who made passage of the civil justice bill his top priority this year. "People can still recover and have their day in court."

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 changes joint and several liability guidelines to alter so-called "deep pocket" rules that had allowed an injured person to recover all damages from any defendant regardless of their individual share of 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.

The measure also caps non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering, at $400,000 but allows a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury. 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.

"We still have some work to do on the economic damage portion of it," Coffee said. "Hopefully, we'll complete that part of it this next session."

Benge's focus on alternative energy this year bore fruit in the passage of legislation that would make companies that support and service wind energy companies eligible for the state's Quality Jobs
Act in an attempt to attract them to Oklahoma.

The Quality Jobs Act gives companies financial incentives to relocate to the state or expand existing operations if they create new, well-paying jobs and offer their employees health insurance.

The Legislature also passed other GOP-backed alternative energy bills that go into effect on Jan. 1. They include measures intended to expand the number of vehicles in the state running on alternative fuels like compressed natural gas and also expand the number of publicly available CNG fueling stations.

The state's new Lemon Law gives vehicle buyers better protections if the new car or truck they have purchased turns out to be a lemon.

Among other things, the bill gives consumers the choice of a refund or replacement of a defective vehicle. It also places a standard in state law for a manufacturer's charge for mileage on a defective vehicle and prohibits a manufacturer from charging for mileage if the lemon is simply replaced.

Legislation that expands the successful Insure Oklahoma premium assistance program also goes into effect Sunday.

First conceived by Henry in 2004, a bill authored by Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Kris Steele of Shawnee, the House's second-ranking member, will make the public-private partnership more accessible so small businesses can provide health care coverage for their low- and middle-income employees and reduce the state's 600,000 uninsured residents.

The measure creates a core benefits package for young, healthy Oklahomans to purchase inexpensive insurance policies that are free of the costs associated with the state's 36 health insurance mandates. It also creates an insurance hub to help match Oklahomans to private insurance plans that fit their needs.

Legislation requiring health insurers to cover the diagnosis and treatment of autism was defeated by the Republican-controlled Legislature this year. But a measure that goes into effect Sunday creates a plan to increase the number of therapists who treat children with autism.

The bill creates a licensing process for national board certified behavior analysts and enhancement of existing state programs that would train doctors to diagnose and treat autism.

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