|American Enterprise Institute|
Will tort reform help Oklahomans?
By Andrew W. Griffin
Red Dirt Report, editor
Posted: February 10, 2011
OKLAHOMA CITY – A buzz is growing in Oklahoma political circles this week following Gov. Mary Fallin’s “State of the State” speech on Monday and her sudden calls for tort reform, an issue not emphasized during her 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Fallin stated: “I’m also asking our legislators to work with me to get a lawsuit reform package signed into law, one that includes a hard cap of $250,000 for non-economic damages. We believe in justice for every Oklahoman. But we don’t believe in jackpot justice. And excessive awards for non-economic damages hurt businesses, destroy jobs and give a bad name to a legal system whose professionals are, for the most part, dedicated to ensuring fair outcomes for all parties.”
And taking up the charge in the Senate is Sen. Anthony Sykes who has already authored Senate Bill 863, which would allow injured parties to receive no more than $250,000 “regardless of the number of parties against whom the action is brought or the number of actions brought.”
Sykes has received a lot of heat for introducing this tort-reform bill, particularly among Tea Party conservatives like David Tackett and his Broken Arrow-based Oklahomans for Liberty.
On their website, LibertyOK.com, Tackett wrote: “Two years ago we had tort reform … MAJOR tort reform. It took on the issue of frivolous lawsuits head on and said that the most you could win in non-economic damages (pain and suffering, etc.) was $400,000. However, in the most egregious case a judge could lift that ban.”
While Fallin is saying we “don’t believe in jackpot justice,” just two years ago Republican House Speaker Chris Benge said in a House press release from May of that year: “The days of Oklahoma being known as a jackpot justice state are over.” It was then that Gov. Brad Henry signed comprehensive tort reform into law.
The question many are starting to ask is, why is this issue being revisited when jackpot justice was already addressed in 2009?
Alex Weintz, spokesman for Gov. Fallin, told Red Dirt Report in an e-mail that while on the campaign trail, noting that Fallin’s campaign website, under “Issues” noted that to have the “right climate for business,” one of the issues to address is “reducing costs from predatory lawsuits.”
Added Weintz: “The governor believes that, while the state has taken some positive steps in the past to reform our workers compensation and legal systems, a lot more can be done. The state of Oklahoma is still burdened by excessive legal fees and workers comp costs, both of which ultimately act to drive jobs out of the state. That’s why Gov. Fallin supports additional reforms that will create a friendlier environment for business growth and job creation.”
On the other hand, Tackett writes that the previous legislation has worked: “Frivolous lawsuits have dropped. In fact, most medical doctors malpractice insurance in Oklahoma has stayed flat over the past two years simply due to the fact of this new law and the business friendly court system we have in place in Oklahoma."
“But for now, for only reasons that the State Chamber knows, Sen. Sykes, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is (introducing SB 863)," Tackett wrote.
Tackett speaking for Oklahomans for Liberty, notes that as strong adherents to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, “(SB 863) is not about tort reform. It is about taking away your constitutional right to seek legal recourse from someone who has caused you harm.”
And while SB 863 passed in the Sykes-led Judiciary Committee, a report from OKWatchdog.org, by Jeff Raymond, reported that a constituent of Sykes’, Sandy Chow was initially not allowed to speak during Tuesday’s Judicial Committee meeting, although Sen. Brian Crain insisted and it was allowed. Chow, it was explained, his wife was initially told she was cancer-free when it turned out she wasn’t. Chow told OK Watchdog that as Sykes’ constituent and a citizen that he was “enraged” and thought it was “unconscionable” that Sykes was not going to allow him to speak.
Said Chow in the article: “I feel that the judicial process in place is the right process in terms of determining the amount that should be awarded to each individual case because of the unique characteristics on a case-by-case basis.”
One source said it was Sens. Sykes, Rob Johnson
(R-Kingfisher) and Jonathan Nichols (R-Norman) who didn’t want Chow to speak. Nichols
was not available for comment when his office was contacted. Sykes has not responded to a call placed by Red Dirt Report to his office. Johnson had not yet been contacted by the end of business hours on Thursday.
Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and is reportedly pushing forth a House version of the bill, mirroring Sykes’ bill.
Sykes, meanwhile, in a press release following the Judiciary Committee meeting, said, “We have been working on lawsuit reform for years, taking mostly an incremental approach because we did not have the numbers or a Republican governor to support strong reforms. These bills protect Oklahomans, our doctors and our businesses from frivolous lawsuits.”
Tackett, meanwhile, told Red Dirt Report that “as conservatives, we have to fight for our constitutional rights and to preserve liberty. And as conservatives, we believe in the 2nd amendment and know it well and many know the 10th Amendment by heart. But the 7th Amendment is just as important. And with Senate Bill 863 this is a major attack … pushing the balance of power in favor of large corporations.”
Specifically, the 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, promises the right to a jury trial in certain civil trials. And as Andrew Cochran, the online “7th Amendment Advocate” has noted that he has offered to buy “the best dinner in Washington” to anyone who shows him just one pro-tort reform quote by any Founding Father. So far he has had no takers and concluded: “I’m not worried because none of (the Founding Fathers) proposed limiting our 7th Amendment rights.”
Tackett said he understands that many conservatives are not in favor of supporting trial lawyers or embracing so-called “jackpot justice.” Yet, he and other constitutionalists believe that they cannot be hypocrites and “pick and choose” what amendments they support.
“A lot of conservatives are coming out of the woodwork,” Tackett told Red Dirt Report. “And we’re not anti-business.”
In fact the Sooner Tea Party, based in the Oklahoma City area, is concerned about this tort-reform legislation as well. Sooner Tea Party founder Al Gerhart told Red Dirt Report that “SB 863 is going to be another pressure point between the grassroots movement and the State Chamber of Commerce” and that he and his group were meeting with attorneys to examine the issue further.
Activists, citizens and political observers have all noted with growing concern that the Fallin administration and the Republican leadership is ignoring the voice of the Tea Party and conservative grassroots in favor of the corporate money and business interests. We even noted here at Red Dirt Report that Gov. Fallin’s inaugural ball was largely an event for corporate interests over the regular folks who have supported Fallin. The governor, just this week, rewarded inaugural ball organizer and former Chesapeake Energy public affairs director Deby Snodgrass with the position of Tourism and Recreation Department director. It was Snodgrass, complained the spurned conservatives, who had designed the inaugural ball as a small, intimate and elite event.
And the grassroots does not forget.
“(The Republicans) are basically siding with the State Chamber and their benefactors,” Tackett said.
Talking to CapitolBeatOK.com, Democrat Party Chairman Todd Goodman said that Fallin’s call for non-economic damages in lawsuits is “alarming.”
“I think a child’s life is absolutely worth more than $250,000 to a family when lost because of physicians’ neglect or mistake,” Goodman told CapitolBeatOK.com. “How can you put a price on the loss of a loved one?”
Sen. Andrew Rice, the focus of the CapitolBeatOK.com article agreed, saying, “You know, we all should look warily at caps on legitimate legal services and awards. Most often those decisions should be left up to juries who have all the facts. And, what about instances where it’s a business vs. a business in litigation? In that instance it is hard to describe a limit on one side as ‘pro-business.’”
As one political observer told Red Dirt Report this week; “The Republicans are acting like liberals and are embracing anti-constitutional measures. I think they woke up the day after the elections and saw the broad margins, realized they’re veto proof and that they’ve got the numbers to do it.”
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