Oklahoma enacts comprehensive tort reform

Physicians are pleased with the new law, which includes several medical liability protections. But they plan to monitor certain provisions.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted June 8, 2009

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Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry signed into law a comprehensive tort reform package that includes a number of protections physicians say will help improve access to care.

The legislation, signed May 21, places a $400,000 cap on noneconomic damages in various types of civil liability cases, including medical liability suits. The cap would be lifted in cases of gross negligence or permanent disfigurement.

The law:

  • Requires an expert opinion, or certificate of merit, with the filing of a liability case. The requirement would be waived for indigent plaintiffs who cannot afford an expert.
  • Helps ensure that defendants are held responsible for only their share of fault.
  • Strengthens the definition of frivolous lawsuits.

The governor and lawmakers called the legislation an important compromise by the medical community, trial bar and other business organizations that will help curb frivolous lawsuits and unnecessary legal costs.

"This legislation enacts reasonable and responsible reforms that improve the civil justice system without impairing a citizen's constitutional right to have his or her legitimate grievances appropriately addressed in court," Henry said in a statement.

Physicians said the measure, while not perfect, is a significant step in the right direction.

The changes, which take effect Nov. 1, will help relieve doctors of high medical liability expenses and keep physicians from fleeing the state, said Oklahoma State Medical Assn. Executive Director Kenneth R. King. "Overall, this is a pretty solid effort that helps not only physicians, but patients, too."

But the medical association plans to monitor the implementation of the law to "make sure it does what we think it's supposed to do," King said. Physicians do not want to see the exceptions to the cap interpreted too broadly. The reforms also call for the creation of a compensation fund to cover jury awards in excess of the cap, and doctors want to ensure that they are not unfairly burdened with subsidizing the pool, King said.

In 2008, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected a $300,000 noneconomic damage cap that had applied in cases involving emergency or obstetrical care as an unconstitutional special law. Justices reached the same conclusion in 2006 when they struck down a certificate of merit requirement in medical liability cases.

Doctors expect the new law to survive constitutional scrutiny because it encompasses a broad range of liability cases, not just medical negligence suits.

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