Oklahoma’s civil justice system ranks No. 33 among states in a national survey of lawyers representing insurance companies and public corporations and was judged better than some nearby states that have restricted the size of lawsuit damage awards.
The 2006 survey by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Oklahoma as one of 18 states having a “moderate” civil justice system. Three of the five states that border Oklahoma were in the “worst legal systems in America” category.
Among those states was Texas, even though it has imposed a so-called “hard cap” on pain-and-suffering damages, something sought by sponsors of similar legislation in Oklahoma.
The sampling of 1,456 company attorneys showed West Virginia as having the “worst” civil justice system in the country and Delaware as having the “best.”
New Mexico placed 40th in the 2006 State Liability System Ranking Study, while Arkansas was 41st and Texas was 43rd. Colorado and Kansas were listed in a category of the 17 states with the “best” systems.
Attorneys for the companies listed jurisdictions that had cities or counties with “the least fair and reasonable litigation environment.” Texas was on the list as a state, along with Houston, Fort Worth-Dallas, and Hidalgo County, Jefferson County and Harris County in the Lone Star State.
No Oklahoma cities or counties made the bottom 30 list.
The survey results come as proponents of a House-passed bill to change the state’s lawsuit system is awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, committee chairman, said he would bring the bill up for a vote Apr. 4.
House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, has made lawsuit change his top legislative priority. Rep. Fred Morgan, R-Oklahoma City, has argued lawsuits are “out of control” in Oklahoma.
Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, said he was not surprised by the survey’s results.
“Oklahomans are, by their nature, moderate,” Mike Morgan said. “Our judges are moderate. Our juries are moderate.
“It’s no surprise then that this national study ranked our state’s liability system as moderate. Jackpot justice is a part of the culture in Texas, but it’s not a part of our culture in Oklahoma. Our culture is based on personal responsibility and accountability.”
Doctors and the State Chamber of Commerce also have been pushing for changes in Oklahoma’s civil justice system.
A recent survey of doctors by the Oklahoma Alliance of Physicians for Tort Reform, showed 80 percent of state doctors increase tests and take other “defensive” steps to protect themselves from being sued.
Dr. Eli Reshef, spokesman for the doctor’s group, said the U.S. Chamber survey “just means to me that Texas still has a long way to go in terms of accomplishing a more equitable system in terms of practicing medicine in a less litigious environment.”
Reshef said he considers as “fair” the $300,000 cap on pain and suffering currently in the legislation pending in the Senate. “It’s the unpredictability that kills physicians” on malpractice insurance rates, he said.
Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, the Senate’s Republican leader, said he was glad Laster had decided to have an up-or-down vote on the bill.
Coffee said it will be an uphill fight to pass the measure in the committee, which is made up of five Democrats and four Republicans.
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