Oklahoma Lawmakers Want Special Session on Business Legal Liability

By TIM TALLEY | August 9, 2013

Spokesmen for the leaders of Oklahoma’s House and Senate said Wednesday the lawmakers want the governor to call a special session “sooner rather than later” so that the Legislature can consider restoring laws overturned by the state Supreme Court that were designed to cut businesses’ legal liability costs.

Legislative leaders have discussed reconvening the Oklahoma Legislature since June when the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, struck down as unconstitutional legislation adopted by lawmakers in 2009 that supporters said would make the state more attractive to businesses and help create jobs.

Lawmakers have discussed possible dates for a special session with Gov. Mary Fallin, who would call the Legislature back to the Capitol. But Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said no final decision has been made.

Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman believes it’s the governor’s prerogative to select a date, but he wants a special session “sooner rather than later,” spokesman Nathan Atkins said.

“He would certainly like to see it before the end of year,” Atkins said. Lawmakers will convene the regular session of the 2014 Oklahoma Legislature on Feb. 3.

Atkins said Bingman, R-Sapulpa, is concerned that the Supreme Court’s decision had created “a legal morass” and uncertainty among the legal community about which statutes will be applied to the lawsuits.

“It’s important to have certainty,” Atkins said. He said Bingman believes some lawsuits might be re-litigated under civil justice guidelines that were in effect before the 2009 legislation was passed.

“You have so much uncertainty coming from Washington, D.C., as far as job creators are concerned,” Atkins said. “We need to do everything we can in Oklahoma to give them certainty.”

A spokesman for House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said Shannon shares similar concerns.

“As the possibility of more and more cases being reopened due to the present uncertainty, we feel that this is an issue that needs to be tackled sooner rather than later,” spokesman Joe Griffin said. “It’s basically waiting on the governor to make a call.”

The 2009 legislation made a number of changes to how civil lawsuits are filed and litigated in the state, including redefining what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and strengthening summary judgment rules that make it easier for a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that has no legal merit.

The bill changed joint and individual liability guidelines to alter so-called “deep pocket” rules that had allowed an injured person to recover all damages from any defendant regardless of their individual share of liability. The measure also capped pain and suffering damages at $400,000 but allowed a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury.

The state’s highest court said the bill violated the constitutional requirement that legislation pertain to a single subject to ensure that Oklahoma legislators and voters are aware of a measure’s potential impact.

Two dissenting justices handed down a separate opinion that said the Legislature and the public understood the purpose of the legislation to be lawsuit reform.

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