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Okla. Supreme Court invalidates civil justice law

June 4, 2013

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A civil justice reform measure hailed in 2009 as the most comprehensive bill to ever affect Oklahoma's legal system was declared unconstitutional Tuesday by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 decision, the state's highest court declared that the law, known as the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009, violated the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution and amounted to unconstitutional logrolling, or the passing of legislation that contains multiple subjects.

"The bill is unconstitutional and void in its entirety," the 10-page decision concludes. The 2009 law made sweeping changes to the way Oklahomans file lawsuits.

The decision was applauded by trial attorneys and others who said it placed unconstitutional barriers to Oklahomans' right to go to court and seek judicial remedies to injuries and other wrongful acts.

Guy Fortney of Tulsa, president of the Oklahoma Association for Justice, a coalition of trial attorneys and their clients, said the decision will force the Legislature to adhere to constitutional guidelines when addressing issues like lawsuit reform.

"It is certainly a victory in our view for the citizens of Oklahoma who have a right to access to not only the courtroom, but to a jury that can consider all the evidence before it including the full amount of damages which would remedy the defendant's wrong," Fortney said.

Fred Morgan, the president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, a pro-business group that supported the legislation, expressed disappointment.

"Regrettably, the activist judges on this court have shown they will continue to anoint themselves the ultimate arbiter of the state's social, moral and legal values," the former state lawmaker, who has been active in lawsuit reform efforts, said in a statement.

The court's ruling involved a lawsuit in Tulsa County in which the estate of a man who died after being treated at a rehabilitative care center alleged he received negligent care and treatment. The suit was dismissed for failure to comply with the new law's guidelines, but the Supreme Court reinstated and remanded the case back to Tulsa County District Court.

When the law was passed, supporters said the guidelines would help block frivolous lawsuits and reduce malpractice and liability insurance costs for doctors and businesses. Among the changes it made was redefining what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and strengthening summary judgment rules, making it easier for a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that has no merit.

The bill also changed joint and individual liability guidelines to alter so-called "deep pocket" rules that had allowed an injured person to recover all damages from any defendant regardless of their individual share of liability. The measure also capped pain and suffering damages at $400,000 but allows a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury.

The court's majority opinion, written by Justice Noma Gurich of Oklahoma City, said the bill violates the constitutional requirement that legislation pertain to a single subject to ensure that Oklahoma legislators and voters are aware of a measure's potential impact.

"This court has long rejected a broad, expansive approach to the single-subject rule," the decision says. "H.B. 1603 contains 90 sections, encompassing a variety of subjects that do not reflect a common, closely akin theme or purpose."

The decision says the first 24 sections of the law amend and create new laws within the state's civil procedure code.

"... We find the provisions are so unrelated that those voting on the law were faced with an all-or-nothing choice to ensure the passage of favorable legislation," the decision reads.

In a separate opinion, justices James Winchester of Chickasha and Steven Taylor of McAlester dissented, saying they believe the Legislature and the public understood the purpose of the legislation to be lawsuit reform.

"This opinion demonstrates how difficult the single-subject rule is to explain with the precision necessary to instruct a legislative body concerning the rule's application," they wrote.

A coalition of consumer advocacy groups and attorneys who specialize in medical malpractice and product liability cases initially fought the bill, arguing that it would block Oklahomans' access to the state's courts.

In a separate 7-2 decision, the court also invalidated a requirement that injured people submit a certificate of merit before they can file professional malpractice lawsuits. The majority opinion said the requirement was "an unconstitutional burden on accessing the courts."

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