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Senate Approves Bill To Change Civil Justice System

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The Oklahoma Senate on Thursday narrowly approved a Republican-sponsored bill making changes in the state's civil justice system over objections it protects wrongdoers whose negligence hurts innocent people.

The vote was 25-23 for the bill, introduced by Sen. James Williamson, R-Tulsa. It takes 25 votes to pass a bill in the 48-member Senate.

Proponents said the bill is needed to help businesses dealing with rising lawsuit costs and to prevent high malpractice insurance rates paid by doctors.

The measure puts a $300,000 cap on non-economic damages, commonly referred to as pain and suffering, unless gross negligence or malice is proven.

It also seeks to prevent frivolous lawsuits.

Opponents said the bill, which was pushed by business groups and the Oklahoma State Medical Association, protects special interests to the detriment of everyday citizens.

They also said changes in state law on class action lawsuits would thwart the ability of mineral rights owners to recover payments they are owed by energy companies.

"It gives the big oil companies an incentive and an opportunity to cheat the little guy," said Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, who called the measure "sinful."

Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, objected to language she said would allow nursing homes and hospitals to hide information about what injured or killed a patient if the information is brought up during a "quality assurance" meeting.

Several senators predicted the House-passed measure would be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, who issued a statement saying he would closely study "the very lengthy and very complex" legislation to see if it is in the best interests of all Oklahomans.

Henry said equal access to the justice system is a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitutions of Oklahoma and the United States.

"It is critical that any reform measure preserve or strengthen that basic right as it attempts to reduce costs associated with the system," he said.

All 24 Republicans voted for the bill. Twenty-three of the Senate's 24 Democrats opposed it. The exception was Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, a doctor's wife who earlier sponsored a lawsuit reform measure.

Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, argued for the bill, saying lawsuits are bankrupting the health care system and hurting small businesses.

"This bill is for every mom and pop businessman out there," Williamson added.

Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, issued a statement saying the bill was "another extreme solution looking for a problem."

"We don't have jackpot justice in Oklahoma," Morgan said. "Our doctors aren't leaving the state. Big corporations won today and Oklahomans lost."

Williamson said "a trailer bill" would be offered to make changes drawing some objections.

One provision that will be changed, he said, allows the proceeds of insurance policies to be deducted from damage awards. Williamson said the change will leave it to a judge or a jury to make that decision.

Also, he said, the new legislation will make it clear that any class action lawsuit already started on royalty rights would not be affected by the bill approved on Thursday.

Sen. Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward, disputed claims the bill impedes class action lawsuits on behalf of royalty owners. He said it "actually provides protections for royalty owners by allowing an independent attorney to be appointed to represent the class when attorneys' fees are determined."

He referred to a provision that requires individuals to make a conscious decision to become a part of a class action lawsuit by "opting in" to the litigation." Currently, individuals can be included in such suits without their knowledge.

Other provisions of the bill prevents so-called "cheeseburger" lawsuits by prohibiting obesity action against restaurants and others in the food industry and restricts punitive damages in professional liability lawsuits unless a jury finds intentional or gross negligence through clear and convincing evidence.
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