A key conservative Republican agenda item, the “hard cap” on non-economic damages in tort litigation, went to Governor Mary Fallin’s desk Monday.
House Bill 2128 cleared the state Senate 30-14. The measure had the support of 29 Republicans and one Democrat, state Sen. Susan Paddack of Ada. Opposing the bill were 13 Democrats and one Republican, state Sen. Harry Coates of Seminole.
Two Democrats (Roger Ballenger of Okmulgee and Sean Burrage of Claremore) did not vote; two Republicans (Rick Brinkley of Rogers County and Steve Russell of Oklahoma City) also did not vote. All four were listed as “excused” from the roll call this afternoon.
In a press release sent to news organizations just minutes after the measure passed, the State Chamber characterized it as including “some of the strongest lawsuit reform in the nation.”
Sponsored by Speaker of the House Kris Steele of Shawnee and Senator Anthony Sykes of Moore, H.B. 2128 would place a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages.
In a statement provided to CapitolBeatOK, Sykes characterized the bill as “a vital piece of the Senate Republican jobs agenda.”
President Pro Tempore Brian Bingman said, “Oklahoma can now not only be competitive in the recruitment of jobs and doctors, we can best our competition with lawsuit reforms that lower the cost of business and end defensive medicine.”
A Republican Senate staff release on the measure contended that if a “case has any of the criteria to lift the cap, the judge and jury can award a judgment beyond the level of the cap.”
The State Chamber release on the issue said, “The legislation does not impact damages such as lost wages, medical expenses and future loss of expected wages. The bill also lays out exceptions to the cap cases of gross negligence, reckless disregard, intentional actions, or malicious conduct.”
Fred Morgan, president of the State Chamber, cheered the victory, saying, “This bill sends a clear message to businesses both within Oklahoma and nationwide that our state is serious about creating a pro-growth business climate second to none. This legislation will help to minimize the number of frivolous lawsuits filed in Oklahoma, reduce medical costs and improve access to medical care, especially in rural Oklahoma, all while protecting those with legitimate cases.”
Morgan said the measure will help Oklahoma compete against states in the region that have passed major reforms in recent years, including Texas, Missouri, and Mississippi.
One opponent, Sen. John Sparks of Norman, a Democrat, assailed the outcome, saying in a statement sent to CapitolBeatOK, “The approval of this legislation sends a clear message to the people of our state: Oklahoma Republicans do not trust you to be fair and make good decisions in the jury box.
“The Republicans’ bill even goes so far as to protect child molesters and drunk drivers. I still believe Oklahomans are capable of understanding issues and acting fairly as members of a jury. It is fundamentally unjust for the Republican-controlled Legislature to conclude they are better equipped to determine justice than the people of Oklahoma.”
Speaker Steele said in a post-passage statement this afternoon, “I am extremely pleased the Senate has passed this historic piece of legislation. Placing a cap on noneconomic damages is a key part of the reform agenda promoted by members of the Legislature and the Governor. Lawsuit reform is needed to help grow the state’s economy and increase its competitiveness with other states. It is vital for job creation and to protect access to quality health care.”
Majority Floor Leader Dan Sullivan of Tulsa also celebrated the outcome, saying, “With the passage of HB2128, we will improve far more than just our business environment. Bringing reason to our civil justice system will benefit all citizens of Oklahoma by attracting businesses that pay well and provide benefits.”
Steele, Sullivan and other supporters had to work overtime to get the measure through the House last month, securing a 57-40 margin in the face of unified Democratic opposition and a group of Republicans opposed to the limits on damages, or unwilling to vote for the emergency clause after final passage.
Pressing for the bill’s enactment today was a large contingent of medical doctors led by Dr. Eli Reshef, who has worked tirelessly for the legislation for many years. Reshef led a rebellion against leaders of the state Medical Association when leaders sought to put a “moratorium” in place to prevent consideration of medical malpractice reforms.