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Oklahoma Forum Sunday Apr. 27 @ 12:30pm
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Civil Justice Reform

Written by Dick Pryor on Monday May 18, 2009

(Left to right: Host Dick Pryor, Mike Seney, Terry West and Jeff Raymond)

All along, we were planning on our program on Sunday, May 18th, being about changes in the state’s civil justice system. Tort reform. We knew it was likely to be a major topic in the final days of the legislative session, because a comprehensive bill was still standing with less than a month to go before Sine Die Adjournment on May 22nd. What we weren’t counting on was that new, compromise legislation was going to be rolled out just three days before the taping of our program. The House, Senate and Governor’s office announced the agreement on House Bill 1603 on Monday. So, we adjusted our guest list and the focus of our program from a general discussion of civil justice reform to a discussion of the new House Bill 1603, how it came about and what it would do.

Our producer, Mickie Smith, had already booked Mike Seney from the State Chamber, an organization that has been leading the push for tort reform for many years on behalf of the business community. Mike, himself, is an authoritative advocate in favor of tort reform. We found a new voice in Jeff Raymond, Executive Director of OK Watchdog, a group that advocates for consumers and patients. We contacted the Association for Justice (lawyers) and the Oklahoma State Medical Association (doctors), to get their perspectives on the topic. Their input became epecially important with the legislation moving quickly to the floor of the House and Senate on Thursday. It was hard to work out schedules, but on very short notice Shawnee attorney Terry West of the West Law Firm in Shawnee graciously accepted our invitation to be on the program. We couldn’t have had a better representative for the trial bar. He was been a key player in the tort reform debate for many years and a person with “a seat at the table” for negotiations.

Talk about good timing - the vote in the House on HB 1603 ended on Thursday, just about 12:30, half an hour before we were to sit down for the program, and just a couple of hours before the Senate would take up the bill. At about 12:30 p.m. on Thursday , the OSMA gave us a statement about their position on HB 1603 and we were good to go for a 1:00 p.m. taping. So, knowing that the bill has passed the House just minutes before (and was likely to pass the Senate with ease), we began our discussion.

Once in the program, I found it telling that Terry West said the compromise legislation came about, in part, because the key players in the debate were tired after years of wrangling. In true compromise fashion, the agreement was something each interest group at the table could live with, but not necessarily be excited about. There was give and take. Some pet provisions were dropped and others adopted. But, in the end, the revised HB 1603 was agreed to by representatives of the medical, legal and business communities with hopes of putting the issue behind them, at least for a while. West hoped the agreement would take tort reform off the table for three or four years. Seney agreed that it would, but only until a legal challenge occurred.

Terry West commented that a key provision would be a system for tracking lawsuits, to determine just how big (or small) the problem of “lawsuit abuse” really is in Oklahoma. He also approved of the possibility of breaking the $400,000 non-economic damages cap in egregious situations. Mike Seney was excited about provisions that were wanted by mineral rights owners and a provision that better defined expert witness testimony to eliminate the use of “junk science.” Jeff Raymond said his group had no interest in the provisions that would prevent gun manufacturers and the food industry from being sued, but was most concerned about the doors of the court house remaining open to injured people.

Two provisions will bear special scrutinity, if not undergo legal challenges. Seney and West agreed that the portion of the bill that requires a certificate of merit from an expert before a negligence case could be filed would likely be challenged in court. Also, the $20 million indemnity fund to help pay claims against physicians if the non-economic damages exceed a million dollars. That provision had generated considerable heat during House debate, especially from Moore Republican Paul Wesselhoft, who claimed it was a government bailout for doctors and lawyers.

But, that discussion is for another day. Our Oklahoma Forum program on the reforms proposed by HB 1603 was as close to timely as a public affairs program can be. We were on the cutting edge of the legislative process, providing information about major legislation literally as it was happening. Thanks to all involved for an important program.

Until next time,
Dick Pryor


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