Oklahoma enacts cap on noneconomic damages

The award limit adds to other medical liability reforms passed in 2009, the state medical association says.

By — Posted April 25, 2011

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Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has signed into law a series of tort reform measures, including a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in civil liability cases. The Oklahoma State Medical Assn. said the cap is a victory in its fight for comprehensive medical liability reforms.

Fallin said in a statement that the reforms will lessen burdens on medical professionals and increase access to care for patients.

"I'm thrilled to be able to sign into law measures which will directly address skyrocketing legal fees, protect our doctors, and help to bring more jobs and businesses into Oklahoma while still protecting the rights of plaintiffs and those who have suffered injuries," she said. "This is a great day for anyone who is committed to building a more prosperous state and a stronger economy."

Joint and several liability also were eliminated as part of the laws signed April 5. The term refers to defendants being potentially liable for the entire amount of a plaintiff's damages, regardless of their degree of fault.

The damage cap improves upon state tort reform measures passed in 2009, said Wes Glinsmann, director of state legislation and political affairs for the state medical association. The 2009 law requires that civil lawsuits include an expert witness opinion stating the case has merit before the suit can move forward. Hospital peer review information no longer is subject to discovery, and plaintiffs are unable to back-date interest accrued on damages until two years after the incident took place.

"The cap bill was one of the last pieces of the puzzle," Glinsmann said. "It's been a long process. Certainly none of it happened in a vacuum."

American Medical Association Executive Vice President and CEO Michael D. Maves, MD, MBA, wrote a letter to Oklahoma lawmakers in March in support of the damage cap law. The state's medical liability system causes physicians to practice defensive medicine, "the cost of which is in the billions nationally, at a time when state and federal budgets are under intense pressure," Dr. Maves wrote.

The 2009 measures helped stop medical professionals from leaving the state, Glinsmann said, and the damage cap should encourage new physicians to move to Oklahoma. "Realistically, we certainly think this is a much better place for physicians to practice," he said.

New York cap plan fails

Meanwhile, New York state's final budget has been approved without the governor's proposed medical liability damage cap.

The recommendation by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to place a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages was rejected during final negotiations with legislators. The cap was one of 79 recommendations by the governor aimed at cutting state spending, the bulk of which were accepted by lawmakers, said Morris Peters, spokesman for the New York State Division of the Budget.

However, Cuomo's proposal to create a fund to help hospitals pay for treating neurologically impaired infants was accepted. Peters said the fund will save money for insurance companies and medical centers. The damage cap may be revisited in the future, he said.

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