Okla. Gov. Vetoes Tort Reform Bill

By Sean Murphy
http://www.insurancejournal.com

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry has vetoed a sweeping civil justice measure that would have changed the way negligence and medical malpractice lawsuits are filed and litigated in state courts.

Despite his veto of the so-called “tort reform” bill, Henry said he planned to work with lawmakers on a compromise measure to address what he said were flaws in the bill.

“Over the past 72 hours, we have worked diligently with interested parties to address legal concerns about a number of provisions in Senate Bill 507,” Henry said in a statement. “Although we made a great deal of progress toward correcting flaws in the legislation, time ultimately ran out and I was forced to veto SB 507.”

Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee accused Henry of “flip-flopping” on the issue of civil justice reform, but said he stood willing to continue negotiating with Henry on a revised measure.

“The governor missed a grand opportunity to send a message to the nation that Oklahoma is pro-jobs, pro-doctor, and pro-business,” said Coffee, R-Oklahoma City. “Instead, he sent a message that millionaire trial lawyers are still running the show.”

“There is still time this session to pass a meaningful lawsuit reform bill.”

April 28 was the deadline for Henry to either sign or veto the bill, which passed the House and Senate earlier in the month.

Henry, an attorney, said some provisions of the bill were unconstitutional and restricted Oklahomans’ ability to seek justice through the court system. He specifically mentioned the bill’s $300,000 cap on non-economic damages, also called pain and suffering, and what he said were unintended consequences of the bill’s provisions on class action and joint and several liability.

Supporters of the bill have said caps on non-economic damages in other states have driven down the cost of medical malpractice insurance.

House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, criticized the governor for trying to “water down” the key provisions of the bill in recent days.

“Where has the governor been the last four months? To renegotiate a complex and lengthy bill at the eleventh hour ignores the fact that this has been a topic at the Capitol for months,” Cargill said in a statement. “It is ridiculous for the governor to claim he is trying to protect businesses. Business owners know the truth, and they wanted this reform.”

Henry said a major factor in his decision was Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson’s opposition to the bill.

Edmondson earlier this week urged Henry to veto the bill, saying it would cripple his ability to take legal action to protect the state and its people.

“Obviously, the attorney general’s opinion carries great weight with me,” Henry said.

Among other things, SB 507 would have:

–Created the so-called “cheeseburger bill” that protects against obesity lawsuits for restaurants, food manufacturers and growers.
–Required individuals to make a conscious decision to become a part of a class-action lawsuit by “opting in.” Currently, individuals can be included in class-action lawsuits without their knowledge.
–Restricted punitive damages in professional liability lawsuits only if a jury finds intentional or gross negligence through clear and convincing evidence.

Officials from The State Chamber, a business and industry group, also criticized Henry’s decision.

“Even though small business owners and large Oklahoma corporate citizens came together in their effort to communicate the importance of signing the lawsuit reform elements he himself called for, the plain fact is he chose to listen to his trial lawyer friends,” said Mike Seney, the organization’s senior vice president of operations.

“This is not the last lawsuit reform bill that will be put on the governor’s desk. We hope he will eventually realize the frustration Oklahomans have with our current system.”
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