Beginning this week, I have asked legislators to return to the state Capitol to address an issue of great importance to the state, our medical community and our prospects for economic growth and job creation. That issue is lawsuit reform.
My goal during this special session is to work with lawmakers, as quickly and efficiently as possible, to restore the protections against frivolous lawsuits that have served small businesses and doctors well for the past four years.
To understand the urgency of the situation and the need for immediate action, it is important to remember the recent history of this issue.
Before 2009, Oklahoma faced a legal climate hostile to businesses and ripe with frivolous lawsuits. These lawsuits were particularly damaging to doctors and medical professionals, who were frequent targets of medical malpractice claims.
The results were predictable. Businesses were afraid to invest in a state where they were likely to spend vast sums to protect themselves in court. Oklahoma lost good doctors to neighboring states with stronger legal protections. Lawsuits also helped to drive up the cost of medical treatment, hurting Oklahoma families.
To fix this problem, Democratic Gov. Brad Henry worked with Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature to pass comprehensive lawsuit reform. The law they passed made it easier for judges to dismiss lawsuits without merit and made a variety of reforms meant to deliver a fairer system. It allowed those with legitimate grievances to seek compensation through the courts, without encouraging frivolous claims or unfairly punishing businesses and doctors.
The reforms worked. In the two years after enacting the new laws, the number of malpractice payments declined by 39 percent, reaching an all-time low.
As a result, small business owners and doctors saw greater stability and fairness in our legal system, giving them more confidence to invest and stay in Oklahoma. These reforms were part of a winning formula that has given us one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.
Unfortunately, these laws are now under attack. Earlier this year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the reform package unconstitutional, citing the “single subject” rule. Essentially, the court said each provision of the law needs to be passed in a separate bill rather than one large all-encompassing measure.
I disagree with that ruling, but at this time, the best thing to do is follow the court’s lead. To do that, our Legislature must reinstate Oklahoma’s lawsuit reform measures by passing a series of smaller, “single subject” bills that address the court’s concerns.
Some have suggested that we simply wait until next year to address this issue. If we do that, the likelihood is that lawsuit reform will not be reinstated until August of 2014, perhaps even November. While we wait, Oklahoma will move backward. Inaction means opening our doctors and businesses to lawsuits that could drive jobs out of state or drive up the cost of medical care.
The time to act is now.
Editor’s Note: This editorial was first appeared in the September 4, 2013 edition of the Tulsa World.