Oklahoma first passed reforms in 2003 through the Affordable Access to Healthcare Act, or SB 629, which was designed to improve the availability of healthcare services, lower the cost of medical malpractice insurance, ensure fair compensation for legitimate claims and improve the cost-effectiveness of the stateâ€™s medical liability system. The bill included a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages for obstetric and emergency room cases, as those two specialties are most frequently associated with costly adverse medical events and therefore pay the highest premiums. The law also required that the plaintiff present an affidavit from a qualified expert stating he or she believes negligence occurred. The affidavit requirement was overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in a 2006 ruling, as it was judged the affidavit requirement to be a â€śspecial law,â€ť which is prohibited by the Oklahoma constitution, which does not allow one type of negligence case (medical malpractice) to be treated differently than all other negligence cases. In 2008, the noneconomic damage cap was overturned for similar reasoning, as the court noted it only applied to certain torts.
In 2009, Oklahoma passed the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act, which sought to restore some of the earlier provisions, as well as institute new reforms. The new law set a noneconomic damage cap of $400,000 for medical malpractice cases (except in cases deemed â€śexceptional circumstancesâ€ť) and reinstated the certificate of merit requirement (now for all civil liability cases). In 2011, the legislature strengthened the noneconomic cap, setting it at $350,000 and only allowing it to be pierced if the defendant acted in reckless disregard of the rights of others or acted with gross negligence, fraudulently and/or with intentional malice.
In 2013, the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act was overturned as violating the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution. In legal terms, this is known as â€ślogrolling,â€ť meaning to pass a bill with multiple unrelated subjects. However, the $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages was not included in this ruling, as the Oklahoma Supreme Court judged that the 2011 amendment to the cap had made that part of the act constitutional.
In 2017, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared a state law designed to deter the filing of frivolous medical professional liability lawsuits unconstitutional. The stateâ€™s high court has twice before â€” in 2006 and 2013 â€” struck down certificate-of-merit laws that require those who plan to file a lawsuit for professional negligence â€” including medical malpractice â€” file an expert affidavit certifying the merit of the case.
In 2013, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found a similar certificate-of-merit requirement applied only to professional negligence cases and not general negligence cases. Therefore, the Court ruled, it violated the state constitutional ban on laws that create special requirements for certain plaintiffs who are pursuing essentially the same legal action as other plaintiffs.The Oklahoma Legislature responded by drafting and passing a revised bill that required a certificate-of-merit for all negligence cases that typically require expert witness testimony, not just professional negligence cases. It also stipulated that if a civil action for negligence is filed without the certificate-of-merit attached, the court would be required to dismiss the case upon a motion by the defendant. The new law did allow the court leeway to grant the plaintiff an extension of time to provide a certificate-of-merit if the plaintiff showed good cause and the requirement could be waived for plaintiffs who meet certain standards of financial need. This was not enough for the high court, and this time, the court ruled the certificate of merit law was unconstitutional because it â€śis an impermissible barrier to court access and an unconstitutional special law.â€ť
In a 5-3 opinion released in 2019, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the stateâ€™s $350,000 cap on recoverable noneconomic damages is unconstitutional.
According to the majority opinion in Beason v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc., the Court found the noneconomic damage cap to be an unconstitutional â€śspecial lawâ€ť because it limited damages for only those who survive an accident and bring a civil lawsuit. The law did not limit damages for wrongful death lawsuits brought on behalf of the estates of persons killed in accidents. A statute is a â€śspecial lawâ€ť when part of an entire class of similarly affected persons is segregated and targeted for different treatment and is prohibited by Article 5, Section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution. The Justices noted that the Oklahoma Constitution explicitly forbids any limitation on the amount of recoverable damages for injuries resulting in death.