Oklahoma Supreme Court overturns law that caps pain and suffering in personal injury lawsuits

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma Supreme Court has struck down a state law that caps damages for pain and suffering in personal injury lawsuits.

The state’s highest court ruled Tuesday a civil justice statute limiting non-economic damages in personal injury lawsuits to $350,000 is an unconstitutional special law that treats people who survive injuries differently than those who don’t.

The decision involves a lawsuit by an oilfield services worker whose left arm was amputated following an accident.

An Oklahoma County jury awarded the worker and his wife $6 million for pain and suffering, an award that was reduced to $700,000 by the cap.

The cap was adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by former Gov. Mary Fallin in 2011.

It’s among several civil justice reform measures that have been invalidated.

“This is a great victory for injured people across Oklahoma. It provides victims of personal injury the opportunity to get the compensation they deserve for their pain and suffering,” said local attorney Bryce Johnson. “The Supreme Court was clear the Legislature cannot arbitrarily limit compensation for victims. We will continue to fight for victims’ rights against the strong corporate interests often involved in cases like these.”

However, several Senate leaders criticized this decision.

“It’s not surprising the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a lawsuit reform provision under the auspices of it being a ‘special law.’ The Supreme Court has previously demonstrated its dislike of lawsuit reform, and when the court doesn’t like a law they fall back to their old standby of using ‘special law’ or ‘single-subject rule’ to throw out constitutionally sound bills. If the Supreme Court can’t apply these standards in a consistent basis, then perhaps the Legislature should look at remedies that would bring uniformity to the application of these important provisions of the state constitution,” said Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

The court continues to go outside its constitutional lane of interpreting the law, said Senator Julie Daniels, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The courts are intended to be independent arbiters of the constitutionality of legislation, but you cannot fault Oklahomans for questioning that independence when the court haphazardly uses ‘special law’ and ‘single-subject rule’ to strike down laws the court does not like. This is an issue that merits further study by members of the Legislature,” said Daniels, R-Bartlesville.

Senate Democratic Leader Kay Floyd agreed with the court’s decision and released this statement:

“Tuesday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that arbitrary caps on pain and suffering damages imposed by the Legislature are unconstitutional. In 2009, the majority in the Legislature pushed through legislation to limit pain and suffering damages despite repeated warning that it was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case this week is consistent with almost a decade of previous court decisions striking down legislation for violating provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution. From 2010 to 2013 alone, Oklahoma District Courts, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court have found 14 pieces of legislation to be unconstitutional.

It is a waste of taxpayer dollars for the majority to continually pass clearly unconstitutional legislation. While it is unsurprising some are now complaining about the umpire because they disagree with the call, it is concerning they are going further by attacking the independence of the courts and threatening to change the Oklahoma Constitution in response. We have three coequal branches of government and the independence of the judiciary is a pillar of the American system of government which must be protected.”

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