Okla. Legislature Sends Tort Reform Measure to Governor

May 30, 2003

A highly anticipated tort reform measure has passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives by a wide margin, according to the American Insurance Association (AIA). The bill, which arose from a task force empanelled by Governor Brad Henry (D), is reportedly aimed at addressing the state’s medical malpractice liability insurance crisis.

“The Oklahoma Legislature has taken a step in the right direction to provide Oklahoma doctors and health care facilities with some much-needed relief against a growing tidal wave of lawsuits,” John Marlow, AIA assistant vice president, southwest region, commented. “This measure protects the rights of individuals to seek remedies through the courts while providing certainty and stability to the medical malpractice insurance market in Oklahoma. Passage of this bill will improve the cost and availability of medical malpractice and liability insurance so that doctors and other health care professionals can focus on patient care without the threat of frivolous lawsuits hanging over their heads.”

A compromise version of Senate Bill 629, sponsored by Ted Fisher (D), is entitled the Affordable Access to Health Care Act. The purpose of the Act is to “implement reasonable, comprehensive and effective medical liability reforms designed to:

• improve availability of health care services;
• lower the cost of medical liability insurance;
• ensure that people with meritorious health care injury claims receive fair and adequate compensation; and
• improve the fairness and cost-effectiveness of this state’s medical liability system to resolve disputes over, and provide compensation for, medical liability.”

Among other things, SB 629 would establish a $300,000 cap on non-economic damages for obstetric cases and emergency room cases. SB 629 defines non-economic damages as pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of society and companionship or consortium, injury to reputation and humiliation.

However, if a judge determined “by clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant committed negligence, the judge would be empowered to lift the damage cap. Also, under the bill, the limitation would not apply to lawsuits filed for a wrongful death.

Although some critics have said the legislation does not go far enough to discourage litigation, SB 629 passed the Oklahoma House, 97-0; it previously passed the Senate, 43-1. The bill was sent to Gov. Henry for his consideration on May 28.

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