Oklahoma House Passes Tort Reform Bill

March 10, 2004

A bill intended to curtail the number of lawsuits filed in Oklahoma passed the state House of Representatives with little opposition but lots of amendments.

According to the Oklahoma House media division, a compromise version of House Bill 2661 was approved after three-dozen changes were made—by Republicans and Democrats alike—to several of the 70 sections in the 166-page tort reform measure. No one debated against the bill, which passed 91-8 and will now go to the Senate.

Principal authors of the bill are House Speaker Larry E. Adair, D-Stilwell, and Senate President Pro Tempore Cal Hobson, D-Lexington.

Much of the bill is new law, while other sections would modify existing statutes. Among the myriad provisions in the measure are:
● Attorney fees in a class-action lawsuit would be limited to no more than $500 per hour.
● Contingency fees in a lawsuit would, as a general rule, be limited to no more than 20 percent of the net judgment.
● A medical liability lawsuit could be filed “only in the county where the cause of action arose.”
● A “frivolous” lawsuit would be defined as one in which “the action or pleading was asserted in bad faith, was without merit, was not grounded in fact, or was unwarranted by existing law or a good-faith argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law.”
● Courts would be empowered to reject so-called “forum shopping” by prospective litigants, by refusing to accept jurisdiction in a potential lawsuit.
● An appeal bond of a judgment would be limited to 10 percent of the net worth of the debtor or $25 million, whichever was less.
● The introduction of “junk science” in a courtroom would be barred.
If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge would assist a judge or jury “to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue,” a witness with exceptional knowledge, skill, experience, training or education would be allowed to testify as an expert if his/her testimony “is based upon sufficient facts or data,” the testimony is “the product of reliable principles and methods,” and the witness “has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.”
● Specialized business courts would be established in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties “due to the complex nature of litigation involving highly technical commercial issues…”
● Punitive damages in a lawsuit could be awarded only if the jury hearing the case was unanimous in the decision.
● As a general rule, each defendant in a lawsuit filed against multiple parties could be held liable only for the amount of damages that could be attributed to that defendant, not for the entire judgment. The exception would be if a defendant acted “with willful and wanton conduct or with reckless disregard of the consequences of the conduct…”
● In a lawsuit not arising from a contract dispute, non-economic damages would be capped at $300,000 unless the jury determined “by clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant was guilty of “willful and wanton negligence…” The bill defines non-economic damages to mean pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of society and companionship, loss of consortium, injury to reputation, and humiliation.
● HB 2661 would eliminate “double dipping.” If a plaintiff sued over some “injury or harm,” and received compensation “from a source wholly independent” of the person or company being sued, that compensation could be deducted from the damages the plaintiff ultimately recovers from the defendant.
● The liability of a hospital “for any act or omission resulting in damage or injury to a patient” would be capped at half a million dollars. That limitation would not apply to wrongful death actions or to an act or omission resulting from “gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct.”
● In any lawsuit alleging medical liability, any statements, affirmations, gestures, apologies, or expressions of sympathy, commiseration, condolence, compassion, “or a general sense of benevolence” made by a health care provider to the plaintiff or a relative could not be admitted into evidence at trial.
● Health care providers would be required to furnish a patient with a written estimate of the cost of “any medical care or surgical procedure” scheduled to be provided to or performed on that person.
● School teachers, administrators, nurses and support employees would be exempt from liability “for any act that is within the scope of the duties” of their job and “involves the exercise of judgment or discretion on the part of the employee…” The bill further dictates that no one could file a lawsuit against a school district employee unless the complainant “has exhausted the remedies provided by the school district for resolving the complaint.”

HB 2661 also would exempt volunteers from civil liability “for simple negligence,” although they would not be provided immunity for “willful, wanton or malicious acts of negligence or for gross negligence.”

In addition:
● Land owners would have only limited liability for injuries sustained by anyone during a recreational activity held on their property, regardless of whether the property owner charged an admission fee, if the land owner exercised reasonable care.
● In a liability lawsuit against a product manufacturer or seller, the law presumes that the defendant would not be liable for any injury blamed on “some aspect of the formulation, labeling, or design of a product” if the manufacturer or seller was in compliance with safety standards or regulations adopted by “the appropriate regulatory agency of the federal government…”

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