Disgruntled Debate

By State Rep. Mike Sanders

Special session is underway and so far has involved heated debate over constitutional questions, the necessity of holding a special session, and the scope of policy questions we take up. A number of state lawmakers, who are either opposed to lawsuit reform or simply do not prioritize it highly, are not thrilled to be at the Oklahoma State Capitol and the tone of the discussion reflects their mood.

As I noted in my previous column, the argument in favor of holding a special session is the cost of letting the potential economic benefits of lawsuit reform languish. A 2008 study by the Perryman Group reported that Texas created 223,700 jobs and decreased medical liability insurance premiums by 21.3 percent after implementing lawsuit reforms, specifically a cap on non-economic or “pain and suffering” damages. More than half of U.S. states have a hard cap on “pain and suffering” damages. It is also worth noting that having passed these lawsuit reforms in 2009, we set the expectation of them being in place. When the Oklahoma Supreme Court threw them out, it created the potential for a lot of mischief in our local economy.

That said, none of us are thrilled by a special session and we are trying to make it as short as possible. It is also true that there are other important topics that could be taken up in special session. However, the lawsuit reform is the simplest, because we are not introducing new bills or ideas, but simply reinstating an old law tossed out by the courts. It is also the topic we are constitutionally required to take on since the governor has requested it. Those who are throwing a fit about it are simply trying to score political points.

I wanted to give you more details on the bills we are taking up. The two most noteworthy bills are the cap on “pain and suffering” damages and a bill setting procedures to punish those filing frivolous lawsuits. Senate Bill 9 limits damages for noneconomic losses in a lawsuit to $350,000 except in cases of gross negligence, fraud, malice or reckless disregard of the rights of others. House Bill 1006 sets forth procedures for judges to punish parties who file frivolous lawsuits.

Three other bills deal with schools. House Bill 1002 exempts school district employees from liability when they use necessary and reasonable force to control or discipline students. House Bill 1009 establishes criminal penalties for students who assault school employees. House Bill 1010 prevents attorneys who represent school districts and administrators during disciplinary proceedings for school personnel from serving as judges or hearing officers at due process hearings.

Most bills deal with specific lawsuits. Senate Bill 1 requires a person filing a lawsuit alleging professional negligence to pay for and obtain an affidavit. Senate Bill 12 protects the food industry from obesity and weight gain lawsuits. Senate Bill 13 protects businesses from lawsuits in cases where their products are inherently unsafe and known to be unsafe. Senate Bill 14 sets out rules for asbestos and silicosis lawsuits. Senate Bill 15 limits liability on corporations that unknowingly acquire businesses with asbestos problems. House Bill 1004 limits liability on gun manufacturers. House Bill 1005 authorizes the state health department to regulate health volunteers during emergencies. House Bill 1013 establishes rules for class action lawsuits. House Bill 1015 provides that failure to properly secure a child while transporting the child in a motor vehicle is admissible as evidence in a civil action case unless the plaintiff is a child under the age of 16. House Bill 1007 prohibits the use of peer review statements in discovery in negligence lawsuits against a health professional.

Next week, I will provide you with a summary of the special session.

As always, I would love to hear from you. I regularly check the calls I receive at the Capitol office at (405) 557-7407.

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