House and Senate Republican leaders today announced meaningful lawsuit reform as the top priority for the upcoming 2006 legislative session.
Speaker of the House Todd Hiett and Senate Republican Leader Glenn Coffee said enacting meaningful lawsuit reform is a must if the state wants to attract and keep good jobs.
Coffee and Hiett said the burden of passing the omnibus lawsuit reform in the 2006 legislative session rests solely on Senate Democrat leaders, who have blocked meaningful lawsuit reform the past three years on behalf of their trial lawyer allies. The GOP leaders said if the Senate can't or won't pass a real reform bill early in the session, there is little chance that an agreement can be reached in 2006.
Hiett and Coffee pointed out that Senate Democrats gutted the Justice and Common Sense Act during the 2005 session, even though the measure easily passed the House of Representatives and had widespread support across the state.
"Hardworking Oklahomans deserve better job opportunities, higher wages and lower healthcare costs," said Speaker Todd Hiett (R-Kellyville). "Fundamental lawsuit reform is the most important thing we can do for Oklahoma in the upcoming session. Junk lawsuits create a hidden tax on all Oklahomans, while trial lawyers manipulating the system line their pockets from jackpot awards."
"Oklahoma is losing good jobs and missing out on opportunities to attract new ones because of our inability to keep up with neighboring states that have passed real lawsuit reform. Which major employer will be the next to leave our state if the Legislature fails to stop lawsuit abuse in 2006?" stated Coffee (R-Oklahoma City). "Senate Democrats need to make their choice: Do they want to help attract good jobs to Oklahoma by passing meaningful, comprehensive reform, or do they want to continue their fight to keep the trial lawyers on the gravy train?"
Senate Democrats have consistently tried to kill meaningful lawsuit reform. In 2003 and 2004, watered-down lawsuit reform bills passed the Democrat-controlled state Legislature and were signed into law by the governor.
"Even though trial lawyers have controlled the Senate for many years, this is a chance for Senate Democrats to show they can lead and do the right thing," said Hiett. "Now is the time for true reform. The Democrats have no more excuses."
The Justice and Common Sense Act aims to create a stronger economic climate, reduce health care costs and increase access to quality health care in Oklahoma by stopping junk lawsuits in the state's legal system. Hiett said that as the legal system in Oklahoma has grown increasingly abusive, people from all walks of life now fear they could become the target of lawsuits.
Coffee said Oklahoma's abusive lawsuit climate makes healthcare more expensive. Doctors must pay huge malpractice insurance costs to protect themselves, and the cost is passed on to patients.
The Justice & Common Sense Act will tackle five major areas of reform:
1. Quick and Fair Compensation for Injured People: The Justice and Common Sense Act will make it easier for injured people (plaintiffs) and defendants with strong cases to win on summary judgment, rather than going through the painful, expensive and difficult process of a trial.
2. No more Hunting for "Deep Pockets" in Lawsuits:
*Joint and Several Liability reform: Right now, lawyers fishing for jackpot verdicts use "joint and several liability," the so-called "deep pocket" rule, that holds each defendant in a legal action responsible for the entire amount of damages a plaintiff seeks, regardless of the degree of responsibility. The rule means trial lawyers hunt for financially lucrative defendants. The solution is a proportionate liability rule, under which defendants will only be responsible for their relative share of damages. Oklahoma has a weak proportionate liability rule - the Justice and Common Sense Act will replace the current weak rule with a true proportionate liability standard.
3. Cleaning up Class Action: An important and legitimate part of Oklahoma's legal system, class action suits in recent years have unfortunately turned into a shakedown racket for some trial lawyers. In a notorious case against Jiffy Lube in Oklahoma, attorneys collected millions in fees while the clients got coupons for car service. Cleaning up class action will address two areas.
*If clients get coupons, the lawyers get coupons.
*Limit "contingency" fees: Lawyers will be paid for the hours they actually work, just like everyone else in Oklahoma.
4. Reduce Health Care Costs for Hardworking Oklahomans:
*Putting limits on non-economic damages (a comprehensive cap on non-economic damages) - Money for pain and suffering should be set at common sense levels. Right now, the system is too often abused, hurting both injured people and defendants.
*Greater freedom for doctors to give free care to disadvantaged and indigent Oklahomans - Doctors will be able to provide charity care without worrying about insurance.
5. Common Sense Protection for Business Owners:
*Lawyers sue businesses that make products that have already been approved by the federal government as safe. This will end under the new system. *Choice-based products that everyone knows can be harmful - such as fast food - should not be subject to lawsuits.