Oklahoma Tort Reform Law Struck Down by Court
The Oklahoma Supreme Court has struck down the state’s tort reform law with a pair of decisions that eliminate certain obstacles to plaintiffs’ court access but leave a number of legal questions unsettled.
The state’s 2009 Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act had been a huge blow to consumers, part of a larger nationwide trend aimed at keeping people out of court and limiting the damages they collect if they do successfully reach trial.
Among a host of claim-specific limitations, the Act required plaintiffs to obtain an affidavit of merit for professional negligence suits, enacted stricter discovery disclosure rules for plaintiffs than defendants and required that a suit be dismissed if defendants were not served within 180 days.
It also set a limit on awards for non-economic damages at $400,000, which was subsequently lowered to $350,000.
The state Supreme Court’s rulings on June 4 invalidated the law. In one decision, the court ruled that requiring an affidavit of merit was unconstitutional as a “special law regulating the practice of law and that it places an impermissible financial burden on access to the courts.”
In the second decision, the court voided the entire Act because it violated state law that prohibits bundling statutes of varying subjects together under one bill.
The court’s decisions themselves are unambiguous; however, after four years of amendments to the Act it’s still unclear whether bits and pieces of it can survive.
Debate, Argument and Litigation
At least part of the tort reform law goes on the waste heap immediately, but other sections may live on.
“It is great news for plaintiffs, but it is also going to be quite a mess to navigate for years to come,” says James M. Wirth, founder of the Wirth Law Office in Tulsa. “Finding Oklahoma HB 1603 to be unconstitutional affects 81 different statutes, some of which existed prior to the 2009 Act, some of which did not, and some of which have been amended after the 2009 Act.” Each one must be looked at independently to determine how it will be affected.
“If the statute existed prior to the 2009 Act and has not been modified, then the prior version of the statute should still be effective, albeit not actually in the law books,” Wirth explains. “If the statute did not previously exist and has not been subsequently amended, then it should be considered a nullity, albeit still in the law books at this time. If the law has been subsequently amended, it gets more complicated.”
The damage cap is a prime example. Since the cap was amended in 2011 to lower it to $350,000, proponents could argue that the amendment was not in violation of the single subject statute rule, even though the original legislation was, so the limit should stay.
The unbalanced discovery rules, which require plaintiffs to disclose their discovery findings to the defendants within 60 days of service of process, but do not require the same from defendants, could also potentially stay since it was modified after the original law was enacted.
“So, there will be much debate, argument and litigation over the state of the law after this decision,” says Wirth.
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