The battle over “tort reform” is alive and well in America. Though lawmakers, lobbyists, and Big Business continue to spread misconceptions and rhetoric about the need to revise the civil justice system to reel in what they misleadingly label as “frivolous lawsuits,” high courts across the country are continuing to rule against many of the measures those efforts produce.
That’s precisely what happened in Oklahoma, where the state’s Supreme Court recently ruled against damages caps in personal injury cases.
In a 5-3 decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declared legislation capping damages in personal injury cases was a “special law” prohibited under the state’s Constitution. Here’s a breakdown of the most salient facts of the case and the Court’s decision:
- The underlying accident – The Court’s April 23 ruling stems from a personal injury lawsuit filed by a man who had been injured when a crane on an oilfield toppled onto him in 2012. The crane company was found liable for the man’s damages, and the jury awarded the man $14 million in compensation; $9 million in compensatory economic damages, and $5 million in non-economic damages. The jury additionally awarded $1 million compensation to his wife for her non-economic damages.
- The appeal – Though the jury identified with the profound pain and suffering experienced by the man and his wife and awarded what they deemed fair, Oklahoma’s law capping non-economic damages (which include compensation for “intangible” losses like pain and suffering, loss of consortium, and lost quality of life) meant the non-economic awards were subject to reduction. With the state’s cap being $350,000, the total $15 million award was reduced to $9.7 million. The case was appealed and had been pending for years prior to the Court’s decision.
- The ruling – In the majority opinion (Beason v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc.), the state’s highest court ruled that the tort reform measure capping damages in civil personal injury cases was a “special law” that violated Article 5, Section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution, which generally prohibits any legislation targeting only some individuals for different treatment. Justice John Reif, writing for the majority, noted Oklahoma did not have a law imposing any cap on non-economic damages recoverable in cases involving wrongful death, and as such stated that the law pertaining to personal injury cases unfairly impacted claimants who survived their injuries. If decedents’ families are able to recover the full scope of non-economic damages awarded for the pain and suffering endured by victims prior to their death, he wrote, “no good reason exists to treat a person who survives the “harm-causing event differently” when it comes to financial compensation for the very same pain and suffering.
The decision comes after the OK Supreme Court, in 2013, ruled against the omnibus bill which implemented the law on the grounds that it included more than one subject. Lawmakers were able to work around that decision by calling a special legislative session in the fall of 2013 to re-implement portions of tort reform separately.
Why the Case Matters: “Tort Reform” & Victims’ Rights
The ruling is a significant one, and it will have far-reaching implications on victims who file personal injury claims in the state of Oklahoma. It also fuels an ongoing debate over what’s been called “tort reform” – a term which has become a rhetoric-driven red herring used by corporate powers to pad their profits and protect their own interests at the expense of real people and American families.
Though there are arguments on both sides of the debate, victims’ advocates – which including civil trial lawyers like our team at Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP – know “tort reform” has become nothing more than a means by which powerful corporations can influence laws and the civil justice system so that the scales are tipped in their favor. Damages caps, among of the most glaring examples of “tort reform” which favors profits over people, are criticized widely for a number of reasons:
- Caps strip the ability of juries, who are comprised of everyday Americans, to make decisions about what they deem to be just and right resolutions in civil injury or wrongful death cases, and place that power into the hands of the corporations instead;
- Efforts and legislation supporting damages caps are often bankrolled by Big Business and industry lobbyists that have special interests in getting laws passed in their favor. In the case of damages caps, that means ultimately less money paid to victims; a good thing for corporate defendants and insurance companies, and a bad deal for victims and families;
- Damages caps unfairly limit the rights of only the most egregiously injured (i.e. it only caps damages for victims with extensive damages, and not for those whose damages fall under the caps). As Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices additionally noted, they may also affect only victims who survive their injuries, while allowing the families of those who don’t to recover the full amount of damages for the very same pain and suffering;
- Damages caps ultimately allow corporations to evade full and fair accountability, at the expense of victims, by allowing them to absorb litigation, payout victims’ claims, and go on to continue their dangerous or harmful practices.
Though there are victories in the fight for preserving the civil justice system, there remain many attempted to restructure it in ways that benefit Big Business. Many of these efforts are support by rhetoric about a “frivolous lawsuit problem,” but the measures which have been passed have been shown to fall short in providing any of the benefits proponents say they will.
Helpful Resources & Lawyers Who Care About Justice
- Non-Economic Damages Caps: Do They Apply To Your Case?
- Fight Against Medical Malpractice Damages Cap Continues
- Does Ohio Have a Medical Malpractice Cap?
As the debate over damages caps and other elements of tort reform continue, our legal team at Spangenberg Shibley & Liber LLP will remain as committed to fighting on behalf of the injured and wronged as we have been since our doors opened in 1946. We believe in the civil judicial system, its ability to level the playing field between the average person and the most powerful of corporations, and the powerful message which resonates when full and fair justice is secured.
To learn more about the personal injury and civil cases we handle, or to discuss a potential case of your own, contact us for a free consultation.