Oklahoma Senate Rejects Attorney Fee Caps; Tort Reform Bill Still Alive

April 24, 2009

The Oklahoma Senate rejected a plan to cap plaintiff attorney fees, while voting to keep alive a Republican-sponsored bill to shake up the state’s civil justice system in an effort to curtail lawsuits.

Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said that the rejection of the attorney fee cap could hurt the chances of the GOP leadership to enact a comprehensive bill to curb civil lawsuit awards that drive up business and health care costs.

Critics of the bill said it would prevent average Oklahomans from getting justice if they suffered civil wrongs.

Republicans had used the measure to have a statewide vote on limiting attorney fees as a hammer to bring trial attorneys to the table to negotiate the comprehensive bill, Coffee said.

“It was a blow, but I think it is the beginning of the fight, not the end for me,” Coffee said of the bill’s defeat.

He added there are “lots of ways to resurrect vehicles, but the real purpose is to negotiate an agreement that the governor will sign on tort reform, and if we get that done, that’s all that matters.”

The vote was 23-23 on a referendum to cap attorney fees at 33 percent for the first $1 million damages and at 20 percent for amounts over $1 million. Attorneys can now collect contingency fees up to 50 percent.

It takes 25 votes to pass a bill in the 48-member Senate, which has 26 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the cap plan – Sens. Jonathan Nichols of Norman, Harry Coates of Seminole and Steve Russell of Oklahoma City. Two Democrats were absent.

Coffee kept the bill technically alive on a parliamentary move.

Sen. Tom Ivester, D-Elk City, and others criticized the attorney bill for interfering with private contracts and called it an attack on capitalism.

Sen. Kenneth Corn, D-Poteau, said limiting attorney fees would mean a loss of representation to people who rely on lawyers to pay the cost of fighting insurance companies and entities with lots of money.

Corn quoted scripture as saying: “You must not deny justice to the poor among you.”

“What I think we are doing today is denying the ability of our people to seek justice,” he said.

The comprehensive civil justice bill passed on a 27-19 vote. It will be sent to a joint House-Senate conference committee while negotiations continue.

Coffee said the bill is in the same form as passed by the House earlier in the session.

Among other things, it would cap non-economic damages, also known as pain and suffering, at $300,000, require a certificate from an expert that a lawsuit has merit before it can proceed in state court and change class-action lawsuit guidelines.

Coffee argues the bill is needed to promote economic development and cut down on medical costs.

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