OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- After a lengthy battle with breast cancer, Connie Plumlee was undergoing her last reconstructive surgery when something went horribly wrong.
A fire believed to have started from a cauterizing tool in the operating room ignited alcohol on her face and body, leaving the 58-year-old schoolteacher with a disfigured face and severe burns all over her body.
Plaintiffs like Plumlee would be limited to $250,000 in damages for pain and suffering under a bill approved last week in the Republican-controlled Senate, one in a series of changes to the state's civil justice system that Republican leaders say will benefit doctors, businesses and industry in Oklahoma. But even some Republicans say the changes go too far by limiting the important role that juries play in the process.
"It literally burned my lips off," said Plumlee, a two-time teacher of the year who had to give up her job because of her injuries.
"Still today, when I look in the mirror, it's almost shocking. I don't look the same, and I drool.
"It's just changed my life completely."
3/29/2010 Related Story: Woman Sues Tulsa Doctor For Being Set On Fire During Surgery
Plumlee, from Collinsville, has filed a lawsuit against the doctor and the hospital where the fire occurred. A spokeswoman for the hospital declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Jennifer Annis, an attorney for the doctor, acknowledged there was a fire in the operating room, but declined to discuss specifics while the case is ongoing.
The proposed changes in Oklahoma law would not affect Plumlee's case since it has already been filed, but she said she's speaking out for future victims who may be hurt because of someone else's mistake.
"As a citizen, I just can't sit back," she said. "It just scares me to death to think that they are taking away our rights."
Republican leaders say more business-friendly changes are needed to Oklahoma's civil justice system and that hard caps will entice more businesses and doctors to locate in Oklahoma.
"This is critical to our efforts to boost Oklahoma's economic recovery through laws that encourage businesses to locate and stay in our state, creating more jobs," Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said after the bill passed the Senate last week on a 29-18 vote.
New Republican Gov. Mary Fallin also has made changing the way lawsuits are filed a top priority of her administration, citing in her State of the State address what she described as cases of "jackpot justice" that are driving up insurance costs.
But even some Republicans say the proposed changes go too far.
When Sen. Anthony Sykes, who wrote the bill, attempted a procedural move to cut off any amendments, several Republicans objected, forcing leadership to "twist some arms" to get Republicans to switch their votes, said Sen. Steve Russell.
"Several of my colleagues stood with me and I appreciated it, but it wasn't enough," said Russell, R-Oklahoma City, who opposed the bill. Russell said he thinks a jury that hears the details of a case, not lawmakers, should decide how much an injured party should receive.
"To set limits arbitrarily and artificially without knowing the facts of the case, that's just not called for," he said.
Other changes to the legal system being considered by lawmakers would require compensation from other sources, like health insurance, be subtracted from damages recovered by the defendant, and allow periodic payments, rather than lump sums, to defendants.
Another provision would eliminate joint and several liability, allowing an injured person to recover damages from a defendant only to the degree to which they are at fault.
Wes Glinsmann, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said changes lawmakers have made in recent years already have dramatically reduced the number of frivolous lawsuits and helped reduce the cost of malpractice insurance. He said the latest proposals will make Oklahoma more competitive with other states for attracting top medical professionals by further driving down costs.
"With malpractice insurance, the biggest risk is unpredictability. As a result, the liability rates have to be kept high to cover any losses they might have," Glinsmann said. "We think the cap will provide a little more certainty."
Glinsmann also pointed out provisions in the bill that allow the cap to be lifted in cases where a defendant is "grossly negligent or acted intentionally or with malice."
But Clark Brewster, a Tulsa attorney who is representing Plumlee, said negligence and intentional acts already are covered with punitive damages.
"What does a defendant's negligence have to do with a person's pain and suffering? They're totally unrelated," Brewster said.
Brewster said imposing a hard cap will especially hinder the most vulnerable people who find themselves locked in a legal struggle with large companies or hospitals with teams of high-powered attorneys.
"The people that lawyers like me represent are people who have the most catastrophic event in their lives occur to them," he said. "This is going to create a tremendous imbalance of power."