Coffee vows to circumvent governor, voters on tort reform

by Janice Francis-Smith

OKLAHOMA CITY – When Sen. Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, was the minority leader in the Senate, just getting a tort reform bill heard on the Senate floor was a victory, he said Wednesday. Last year, when Republicans and Democrats held a tie vote in the Senate, getting a tort reform bill sent to Gov. Brad Henry’s desk was also a victory – even if the effort resulted in the governor’s veto.

But this year is different, said Coffee. Now Coffee serves as the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and Republicans hold a clear majority in the chamber. And it’s time to get something done about tort reform, Coffee said at a press conference to announce his caucus’s agenda for the 2009 session.

Coffee said Republican leaders are prepared to ask the people of Oklahoma to vote on a critical piece of the tort reform package: limiting contingency fees.

“It makes no sense to just go through the motions of having a vote on tort reform,� Coffee said. “I’m here to get things done and help them become law. Without changing the environment, without the governor and without the trial bar coming to the table and working to develop a compromise, they leave us very little choice. My position is, if we’re not going to talk about tort reform, then we’ll work on the system. We’ll push forward a referendum that 13 other states have done, which will look at the cap on contingency fee cases.�

If an attorney agrees to front the costs of litigation and receive pay only if the case is successful, that attorney may receive up to 50 percent of the award they win for their client. Coffee would like to cut that limit in half, allowing attorneys to recoup only 25 percent.

“I think it would be a much better use of all our time to sit down and really hammer out an agreement on tort reform, and I think the comprehensive bill is a great place to start,� said Coffee. “But if trial lawyers want to continue to filibuster and not work with us on it, that will be our approach.�

On Wednesday afternoon, Henry’s spokesman, Paul Sund, agreed that lawmakers and the governor will have to work toward a compromise on the issue.

“The governor has a track record of improving the civil justice system and supports additional efforts to reduce frivolous lawsuits, but he also feels very strongly about protecting a citizen’s constitutional right to have his or her legitimate grievances appropriately addressed in court,� Sund said.

Henry vetoed the tort reform bill lawmakers sent him in 2008, House Bill 2458. The measure would have reinstituted a modified version of a law struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2006, requiring plaintiffs in professional negligence cases to first obtain an affidavit from a professional attesting that the lawsuit has merit. A law passed in 2003 was struck down because it applied only to medical malpractice, and thus was deemed an unconstitutional “special� law. The Supreme Court also stated its belief that the requirement created an unlawful barrier to the courts for those who cannot afford to obtain the affidavit.

Coffee said Senate Republicans are also looking at changes to the legal system designed to reduce workers’ compensation costs. No one wants to limit what benefits are provided to injured workers, he said, and the court administrator has already slashed medical costs 12 times in the last few years. That leaves the legal component of workers’ compensation cases as the area Senate Republicans will target in an effort to reduce costs, he said.

Legislation to be proposed this year would require the Senate to approve the governor’s appointments to the Workers’ Compensation Court. The idea of changing from a court system to an administrative system will also be discussed, he said.

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