OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a legislative cap on damages for pain and suffering is an unconstitutional special law.
Legislation in 2011 capped pain and suffering — or noneconomic — damages at $350,000 in cases involving bodily injury, with some exceptions.
It was part of a legislative push for lawsuit reform, also called tort reform, backed by Republican leadership and the State Chamber as an effort to make the state more business friendly.
Then-Gov. Mary Fallin signed the measure, House Bill 2128, in April 2011, despite critics’ concerns that it was unconstitutional.
Former House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, and former Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, were the bill’s authors.
The court nullified the law.
“A statute is a special law when part of an entire class of similarly affected persons is segregated and targeted for different treatment,” according to the order.
The Oklahoma County lawsuit that led to the ruling involved a couple, James Todd Beason and Dara Beason, who sued after the man was severely injured when a boom from a crane fell and hit him.
The accident occurred on March 16, 2012, when James Beason was 34 years old, according to court filings. He underwent two amputations on part of his arm as a result of his injuries.
To comply with the law, a judge reduced the jury award on noneconomic damages to $350,000 for each of the Beasons from a total of $6 million.
The statutory cap on noneconomic damages resulting from bodily injury is the type of special law forbidden by the state Constitution, the court said.
“The failing of the statute is that it purports to limit recovery for pain and suffering in cases where the plaintiff survives the injury-causing event, while persons who die from the injury-causing event face no such limitation,” according to the order.
The state’s constitutional framers intended that all people under the same conditions and circumstances be treated alike, according to the order.
“If the people of Oklahoma ever believe the jury system and judicial review are no longer effective to balance the competing interests over compensation in private personal-injury cases, then a constitutional amendment — not a special law — is the proper way to provide such change,” according to the order.
The Supreme Court reversed the judge’s modification of the jury’s award on noneconomic damages and sent the case back to district court with directions to enter judgment in the full amount of the jury’s verdict.
“Obviously, we are incredibly upset about it,” said Fred Morgan, State Chamber president and CEO. Putting a cap on pain-and-suffering damages is the prerogative of the Legislature, he maintained.
“Once again they used the provision of constitution that talks about special laws as a catch-all provision used to strike down laws they don’t like,” Morgan said.
He questioned when lawmakers would do something about “judicial activism.”
The measure is among a growing number tossed out by the court.
Lawmakers were called into special session in 2013, months after the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a 2009 lawsuit reform bill, House Bill 1603, because it contained more than one subject in violation of the state constitution.
Lawmakers then passed various elements of House Bill 1603 individually. House Bill 2128, with its $350,000 cap on pain and suffering, was one of those bills.
The courts have also tossed out a number of bills putting additional restrictions on abortion.