Special Session Ends on Schedule

By State Rep. Mike Sanders

State lawmakers concluded special session on a tight five-day schedule that allowed both opponents and proponents to discuss the merits of each bill. In the end, there was broad and bipartisan support for most of the bills. I was proud of the efficient but thorough work that was accomplished.

The object of lawsuit reform is to limit frivolous lawsuits that drive up the cost of business and health care in the state. A 2011 cap on “pain and suffering” damages was the only lawsuit reform component still in place after the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to throw out a 2009 law. During this special session using a total of 23 bills, we restored common-sense limitations on liability and procedural requirements to limit frivolous lawsuits.

The affidavit of merit component of the 2009 lawsuit reform bill was ruled unconstitutional by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. It is also a central component of lawsuit reform as it keeps attorneys from being able to file frivolous lawsuits. The court’s ruling against it specifically cited the potential barrier created in the original bill by a $40 fee and interpreted the language “professional negligence” to as specifically targeting a single industry contrary to the constitution.

Due to the court’s ruling, we had to alter the language we were restoring. Opponents of Senate Bill 1x argued the new language was outside of the govenror’s call and unconstitutional. The governor’s call specified that the special session bills should relate to the 2009 lawsuit reform legislation, which they characterized as meaning the bills should duplicate the original language. This characterization is inaccurate as the call also noted that bills should be drafted to ensure constitutional provision are not violated. In the case of Senate Bill 1x, we had to alter the bill to address the court’s ruling.

The amended language allows the courts to determine if expert testimony is needed, but specifies that plaintiffs must include that expert testimony in the affidavit of merit if it is needed. It also provides for individuals who cannot afford to pay the fee.

Senate Bill 14x, which deals with asbestos and silicosis lawsuits, was debated at length. Asbestos-related illness affected many people in this country and we all still feel the sting of its effects on our families and friends. A colleague of mine from Edmond noted that she had lost family members to asbestos-related cancer. You might be surprised to know she voted for the legislation. Why? The new bar it sets limits frivolous lawsuits, allowing real victims to step to the front of the line in receiving badly needed settlements. Another colleague, an attorney, noted a client of his died while awaiting his portion of an asbestos settlement. Frivolous lawsuits literally robbed victims of their legitimate claims.

The other bills basically limited the liability of companies in common-sense scenarios in which a business’s product was used in way contrary to how it was marketed, such as guns for a crime instead of self-defense and recreation. One bill authorized the courts to punish those attempting a frivolous lawsuit.

There was criticism of the process under which these laws were re-enacted. What’s the emergency, we’ve been asked? It’s been said that the bills won’t take effect for three months and by then regular session will start. Another complaint was that more time was needed for tweaks and deliberation.

There are obvious holes in this logic. If we took up these bills in February, with everything else going on during session, they would have likely been passed in late spring and not take effect for another three months. It would have been quite a delay and, in the end, many of the bills passed with emergency clauses, so they will actually take immediate effect upon signing. On the second point, the allowed time for questions and debate was not fully utilized, so it was obviously more than enough.

I would call the special session a success. I am proud of what we were able to accomplished and look forward to the regular session starting up in early February.

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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