The special joint House-Senate Conference Committee on tort reform today endorsed a comprehensive lawsuit reform proposal, the co-chairpersons of the committee announced.
Senator Mike Morgan and Representative Jari Askins said that, in addition to a long list of civil justice system reform measures, the bill includes language to allow the reorganization of the Physicians Liability Insurance Company of Oklahoma and the Hospital Casualty Corporation in a manner that would reduce the immediate need for higher medical malpractice premiums for the state’s health care providers.
By a 6-2 vote of the Senate conferees and an 8-2 vote of House conferees, the committee sent its final proposal to the full House of Representatives where Askins predicted a Friday vote.
“We’ve done more than just provide physicians with protection in future lawsuits. This bill will give them immediate relief from the fast-rising malpractice insurance premiums and by doing so it should ensure the availability of medical care for all Oklahomans. This is Texas-plus,” said Morgan, D-Stillwater.
After 15 hours of public hearings and weeks of intensive study, Askins said committee members concluded that lawsuit reforms alone wouldn’t curb the rising costs medical malpractice insurance premiums for doctors in Oklahoma.
“We had to tackle the insurance crisis at the same time,” said Askins, D-Duncan.
Morgan and Askins pointed out that PLICO, in particular, is faced with raising $143 million in reserves and that’s what’s driving up the cost of malpractice insurance premiums.
“Despite all that we propose to do in the area of tort reform, none of those measures could slow down the increases in malpractice insurance rates facing doctors in Oklahoma next year. That’s because what’s forcing those rates up is the need to recapitalize PLICO,” said Morgan.
“Our proposal will halt the skyrocketing increases in malpractice insurance premiums now. It won’t keep rates from ever increasing again, but future increases will be limited and manageable,” said Askins.
The insurance reform proposal will allow the Oklahoma State Medical Association to create a “medical professional liability trust” to provide medical malpractice coverage for doctors. It would allow HCC to do the same for hospitals and nursing homes. The new trusts, the co-chairpersons explained, would not have the same reserve requirements now imposed by state law on PLICO and HCC.
The co-chairs said that the four public hearings held in April and May offered a multitude of evidence of needed tort reforms – all of which are included in the final version of the bill.
Among those reforms are $300,000 caps on non-economic damages on medical liability actions. The caps, the co-chairs explained, can be removed in certain circumstances.
In a case where the defendant makes a settlement offer before trial and the offer is not accepted, the jury would ultimately have to render a verdict and award the plaintiff an amount that is more than 50 percent than the settlement offer for the caps to be removed.
In addition to reducing the overall costs of litigation for defendants, Morgan and Askins said that they believe the cap provisions will encourage the early settlement of lawsuits.
The co-chairs said that other reform measures that are in the final version of the bill include:
An “I’m sorry” provision that allows doctors to apologize for undesired outcomes from medical treatment without fear of having their apology used against them in a future lawsuit;
Limitations on the practice of “forum shopping” or going in search of a court friendly to the plaintiff;
Defendants who are found less than 50 percent liable can be held responsible for only the percentage of liability assigned to them, which deals with the issue of joint and several liability;
Creation of business courts to deal with disputes arising in the marketplace;
Placing qualifications on expert witnesses in medical liability cases;
Limitations on land-owner liability in cases involving outdoor recreational activities;
Civil liability immunity for volunteer medical professionals;
Limitations to prevent the abuse of the discovery process;
And a provision to discourage “frivolous lawsuits.”
Morgan and Askins lauded the work of the committee and thanked Governor Henry, Senate President Pro Tem Cal Hobson and House Speaker Larry Adair for their leadership.
“The committee members showed great dedication and resolve over the last six weeks as we held more than 15 hours of public hearings and heard sworn testimony from 40 witnesses. All along the way there were those who continued to say that we wouldn’t produce a meaningful reform measure. But the committee members didn’t give up and the result is what we promised all along, a tort reform package that will work for Oklahoma,” Askins said.
“None of this would have been possible without the leadership of Governor Henry, Senator Hobson and Speaker Adair. Throughout our work they steadfastly supported the open and inclusive process which created this landmark legislation,” Morgan said.