Tuesday, September 3, 2013
The Oklahoma Legislature begins a special session Tuesday to reconfigure the state's lawsuit reform statutes.
The statutes were passed in 2009 and 2011, but were killed earlier this year by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Among other things, the 2009 law restricted court-shopping for class-action lawsuits and contained a provision for the review of attorney fees in class-action suits. It also limited non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering.
The Supreme Court ruled that the 2009 law dealt with more than one topic and was therefore unconstitutional, although another non-economic damage cap law remains in effect.
The 2011 law required expert certification for professional negligence cases, such as malpractice suits.
The high court found that was an unconstitutional monetary barrier to justice.
Now, Gov. Mary Fallin proposes cutting up the pre-existing law into smaller, constitutional bites, making other adjustments to deal with the court rulings and putting it all back in law.
That process might be complicated, but it shouldn't be controversial.
The 2009 lawsuit reform effort passed by large, bipartisan majorities and was signed into law by then-Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat. By 2011, when a Republican had won the governor's office, the issue became partisan for legislative Democrats, but there is a solid majority in both houses to support the effort.
Fallin isn't asking for anything beyond a constitutionally cleansed version of what already has been in statute for some time, and which was showing good signs of success.
The laws are important. They help the state foster business growth and attract needed medical talent.
We say it shouldn't be controversial, but it probably will be.
The tort attorneys who challenged the previous law's constitutionality are likely to fight this effort tooth and toenail. It hits them where they hurt: the wallet.
So far, the loudest arguments from lawmakers against the effort have been procedural, not substantive.
Democratic legislators have said there is no emergency, the special session is a waste of money and there is no reason the issue cannot be dealt with in next February's regular session.
Others have said there are more important issues to be discussed first, especially health-care issues facing thousands of uninsured Oklahomans.
We reject both arguments.
Waiting until the regular session could mean the tort reform wouldn't take effect until next August. In other words, the state could face an entire year with its legal environment in doubt for potential employers. Another medical school class could come and go without adequate safeguards against unwarranted malpractice suits.
Splitting up the 2009 bill to the satisfaction of the court will require many different pieces of legislation. A special session is well suited to a concentrated effort for dealing with all the issues at once.
Health-care issues are important and the first step in that direction is preserving lawsuit reform. Lawsuit reform is medical reform. If we want to do anything about the rising cost of health care instead of just spending taxpayer money on the problems, putting common-sense limitations on costly malpractice litigation is the place to begin.
The proposed lawsuit reforms are not radical. They represent reasonable limitations in the best interests of the state, and we urge the Legislature to deal with them appropriately.