State GOP lawmakers hold on to tort reform hopes

by Janice Francis-Smith

OKLAHOMA CITY – Republican lawmakers are still holding out hope for a tort reform measure to make it into law this year, though the tone taken by tort reform advocates in recent weeks betrays an expectation of defeat once again. Previous attempts to pass lawsuit reform this year have resulted in vetoes and dead ends.

“The governor has made it clear that as long as he is in office, he will reject any and all reasonable lawsuit reform measures sent his way,� said state Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, following Gov. Brad Henry’s most recent veto of a tort reform measure the Legislature sent to his desk. Yet, lawmakers keep trying to send Henry a measure he might sign.

“I’m a little concerned because the governor’s knee-jerk instinct is to veto any meaningful lawsuit reform bill that provides protections from lawsuit abuse,� said state Sen. Owen Laughlin last week, shortly after a bipartisan vote of 26 to 22 to approve a measure providing teachers and school principals with some protection from lawsuits.

“We hope this time he will join the Legislature in helping our teachers and schools.�

Gov. Brad Henry vetoed the last tort reform bill to reach his desk, House Bill 2458, which had similarly passed with support from Republicans and a few Democrats as well. HB 2458 would have reinstituted a slightly improved version of a law struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 2006.

The bill would require anyone suing a professional for negligence to first obtain an affidavit attesting that a qualified professional has reviewed the case and deemed the matter has merit. The previous law was struck down because it applied only to medical malpractice and thus was deemed an unconstitutional “special� law, though 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.

Henry vetoed the measure, claiming HB 2458 was too similar to the law the courts have already deemed unconstitutional. Republicans were ‘disappointed but not surprised’ by the governor’s veto, said Senate Co-President Pro Tempore Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City. 

“Instead of continually saying ‘no’ to lawsuit reform with his veto pen, the governor needs to tell the Legislature which reforms he will say ‘yes’ to,� said Coffee in response to the veto. “The trial lawyers have a true friend in Gov. Brad Henry.�

Last month, House Republicans appeared to ruin their own chances of passing a comprehensive tort reform measure this year, when they replaced the 120 pages tort reform included in SB 156 with a three-page bill that would propose a constitutional amendment to reduce the percentage of an award an attorney may claim as a contingency fee.

The measure drew the distain even of some House Republicans, including state Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, who said the measure amounted to “socialism� and the proposal of such a bill represented a political stunt pulled by his fellow Republicans. SB 156 withered on the House floor after lawmakers failed to take action on it by a legislative deadline, though Henry had promised to veto the measure if it had ever reached his desk.

Senate Bill 1024, known as the School Protection Act, is currently the only tort reform measure with a chance of passing this year, though the possibility still exists that new tort reform language could emerge from a conference committee in the waning hours of the legislative session.

SB 1024 provides liability protection from claims against a school district employee who uses “necessary and reasonable force� to control a student or who assigns a student to out-of-school suspension. The bill would also award attorney’s fees to the prevailing party in a lawsuit filed against a school district or school employee, and would make it a crime for a student to falsely accuse a school employee of criminal activity.

“We hope this time he (Henry) will join the Legislature in helping our teachers and schools,� Laughlin said. “I encourage him to sign SB 1024 into law.� As of press time Tuesday, an inquiry to Henry’s office regarding the status of SB 1024 remained unanswered.

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