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Oklahoma tort reform legislation determined unconstitutional

In 2009 and again in 2011 the Oklahoma legislature attempted to limit the ability of innocent people to recover damages caused by irresponsible parties through passing statute 23 O.S. §61.2.  This statute attempted to limit non-economic damages to $350,000.  The legislature defined “non-economic damages” as “damages for pain and suffering, loss of society, consortium, companionship, care, assistance, attention, protection, advice, guidance, counsel, instruction, training, education, disfigurement, mental anguish and any other intangible loss”.  The statute allowed some exceptions for conduct that basically amounts to intentional bad conduct.

The statute could really be unfair to retired people who were hurt.  As an example, if a person who is retired, healthy and active, with no intention of working but instead with the intention of enjoying their golden years instead is severely injured, how does the statute treat them?  Let’s assume the person was 65 years old with a 20 year life expectancy. Let’s further assume the injuries are so severe that an extended hospital stay is required, followed by pain, suffering and nursing home care for the rest of their life.  This statute would allow them to recover their medical bills, future nursing home care, and up to $350,000. Not many people would consider trading their golden years for lifelong pain, suffering, nursing home care and $350,000. If the person had been younger and working, then they could also recover their future lost earnings. In either case, the innocent injured person is potentially limited to something less than what twelve independent fellow citizens serving on jury duty think is fair after hearing all the circumstances.

Oklahoma’s Supreme Court came to the rescue of fairness in the case of BEASON v. I. E. MILLER SERVICES, INC.  2019 OK 28.  The Oklahoma constitution (Article 5, Section 46) prevents the legislature from passing special laws that target part of a class of similarly affected persons for different treatment.  The determining factor hinged on protections the Oklahoma people put in the Oklahoma Constitution at article 23, § 7 “The right of action to recover damages for injuries resulting in death shall never be abrogated, and the amount recoverable shall not be subject to any statutory limitation . . . .”  Central to the logic of the Court’s ruling is how are injured people treated? If two people receive the exact same injury, but one dies and the other doesn’t how does the law affect their recovery? Under the Oklahoma Constitution the one who died is entitled to recover all their damages, the one who survived has their non-economic damages limited.  The rationale of the Oklahoma Supreme Court is that the class of injured people is treated differently by statute 23 O.S. §61.2 making it a special law which is prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution.  The Court struck down 23 O.S. 2011 § 61.2(B)–(F) as unconstitutional.

No longer are victims of other’s negligence limited to something less than full recovery.  A victim in Oklahoma can now recover their non-economic damages, as well as their economic damages.  

What are economic damages?  The statute defines them as:

“Economic damages” means any type of pecuniary harm including, but not limited to:

a. all wages, salaries or other compensation lost as a result of a bodily injury that is the subject of a civil action,

b. all costs incurred for medical care or treatment, rehabilitation services, or other care, treatment, services, products or accommodations as a result of a bodily injury that is the subject of a civil action, or

c. any other costs incurred as a result of a bodily injury that is the subject of a civil action.

The wheels of justice can sometimes move slowly.  This statute has been on the books since 2009 as amended in 2011.  Undoubtedly settlements were made where victims were concerned the law would limit their recovery.  Our court system requires people directly affected by the law to file a lawsuit, go through a trial, then appeal their case, before the Oklahoma Supreme Court will render an opinion on the validity of a statute.   For approximately ten years this law appeared on the books, but now justice has been delivered.

This article is written by Oklahoma lawyer Todd Willhoite.  He represents injured people and is willing to discuss your injury case.  Call him at (918) 341-3101 for a free consultation if you or a loved one has been injured. This article is current as of May 6, 2019, however the law is subject to changes after the date of this article.