A legislative committee in Oklahoma has voted 6-2 for a 227-page bill to revamp the state’s civil justice system after the Senate’s top leader said it was needed to lure jobs and retain doctors.
There was no debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the bill, sponsored in the Senate by President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City.
Among its key provisions are ones to place a so-called $300,000 “hard cap” on pain and suffering damages, to require a certificate from an expert that a lawsuit has merit and to change class-action lawsuit guidelines by requiring litigants to “opt in” to a suit rather than “opt out.”
Sen. Charles Laster, D-Shawnee, questioned the constitutionality of the measure and said it would hinder Oklahomans seeking compensation for legitimate wrongs and injuries.
Doctors held a news conference at the Capitol before the vote to urge that it be sent to the Senate floor and on to Gov. Brad Henry, who has twice vetoed similar legislation.
“Every year, we are losing more physicians to retirement or other states due in large part to Oklahoma’s high medical liability insurance costs,” said Dr. Lee Schoeffler, president of the Oklahoma Medical Association.
Dr. Eli Reshef, a fertility expert, said Oklahoma is exporting its young doctors to other states. He referred to Census Bureau statistics in 2006 showing that Oklahoma ranks 49th among the states with 172 doctors per 100,000 population.
Coffee said Texas had reaped economic benefits from passing comprehensive reform of its civil justice system in 2005.
“Try as the trial bar might, they cannot deny the deleterious effect our tort system is having on access to medical care in Oklahoma, particularly in the rural areas. As one doctor observed today, Texas is now importing our physicians and exporting their trial attorneys,” Coffee said.
The bill is expected to be the subject of further negotiations between business and medical groups and opponents such as trial attorneys and “hopefully” the governor’s office, Coffee said.
“I trust the trial bar will negotiate in good faith and the governor will follow the lead of a vast majority of Oklahomans who want to see real lawsuit reform enacted in Oklahoma,” he said.
Laster said the proposed change in how people can join class-action lawsuits in Oklahoma will “likely destroy the ability of mineral owners” to band together and sue an energy company that has wronged them.
House Bill 1603, supported by chambers of commerce and other business groups, was introduced in the House by Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa.
It was approved by the House, 61-39, over objections from Democrats that it put corporate profits over the interests of injured people.
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