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Damages Caps Struck Down by Oklahoma Supreme Court

By: Allan M. Siegel

The battle over damages caps in civil personal injury cases recently gained renewed attention in a landmark case from Oklahoma.

On Tuesday, April 23, 2019, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a state law which limits monetary damages for victims’ pain and suffering, and declared the caps – passed as part of the state’s “tort reform” efforts in 2009 and amended in 2011 – unconstitutional.

About the Case

In a sharply divided ruling (Beason v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc.), the highest court in Oklahoma declared a civil justice statute limiting non-economic damages in personal injury cases to $350,000 to be an impermissible “special law.” Because Oklahoma’s Constitution prohibits damages caps in wrongful death cases, Justices noted in the majority opinion that the “special law” treats those who survive accidents and injuries differently than those who don’t.

The decision arises from a case that’s been pending appeal in the Oklahoma court system for years: a 2012 oilfield accident involving a worker whose arm was amputated after he was injured by a toppled crane. An initial trial in 2015 found the crane operator negligent in causing the man’s injuries, and liable for a $15 million jury verdict - $5 million of which was awarded for his non-economic damages, and $1 million of which was awarded to his wife for her emotional suffering.

Because of the state’s law capping those damages, however, the jury awards were subject to the $350,000 cap. It reduced what was $6 million in non-economic damages to $700,000.

The Ruling

After the case was appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, presiding Justices ruled 5-3 that the cap violated a provision of the Oklahoma Constitution which prohibits special laws targeting certain people for different treatment.

If victims who succumb to their fatal injuries have the ability to recover damages for the pain and suffering they endured in the period following their accident and prior to their death, the majority opinion held, “no good reason exists” to treat those who survive differently when it comes to financial recoveries awarded for the very same treatment.

The decision follows a previous ruling in 2009, in which the state’s Supreme Court held that legislators’ omnibus tort reform measure violated the single-subject requirement for legislation – meaning it contained more than one subject. Lawmakers convened in a 2013 special session to re-enact components of the tort reform separately.

Why the Decision Matters

The ruling is an important one, and it comes on the coattails of several landmark decisions over damages caps in other high courts across the country. That includes a 2017 decision from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals striking down non-economic damages caps in medical malpractice cases, and a Florida Supreme Court decision from the same year which also struck caps on non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases involving personal injury.

This particular Oklahoma case, though contentious to some, is viewed widely as a victory for victims’ rights. In the battle over so called “tort reform,” a misleading rhetoric-based initiative to reshape civil laws so that they favor corporations instead of people, these types of decisions raise awareness among Americans about laws they often don’t know exist – until it comes time for them to seek justice and compensation for damages caused by the wrongs of others.

Damages caps are a prime example of these laws, and they exist in Maryland (in the form of non-economic damages caps in all personal injury cases) and Virginia (in cases involving medical malpractice). These caps serve not to gain a hold of any purported problems with what lobbyists misleadingly call “frivolous lawsuits,” but rather to:

  • Remove power from individuals, victims, and juries, and place that power into the hands of corporations;
  • Allow corporate defendants and other wrongdoers held accountable in civil lawsuits to absorb costs of litigation and compensatory payouts, rather than solving the shortcuts and dangerous practices which endanger and harm the public;
  • Unfairly limit the rights of only the most seriously injured (who have the most extensive damages), and in some cases, as noted by Oklahoma Supreme Court Justices, only those who survive their injuries.

As with many things which concern Big Business, much of the language and rhetoric surrounding damages caps and other misleading civil justice reform issues stem more from a desire to protect the corporate bottom line than the civil justice system, and more about profits than real people.

At Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., our personal injury lawyers have long advocated for a justice system which provides ad equal playing field for the everyday American who must often face off against powerful corporations and insurers in their fight for justice. We’ve extolled on why these corporations want to reshape laws in their favor, how the civil justice system can and should continue to keep them in check, and how anyone with an interest in making their voices heard can learn more from places like www.takejusticeback.com.

As lawmakers and those backing them continue to introduce legislation which call for capping damages and slashing victims’ rights, and as courts continue to turn them down by interpreting how those measures fit (or do not fit) into the law, the battle over tort reform will wage on. Even as the matter is debated and decided upon, victims still face many barriers to full justice, accountability, and compensation when pursuing their own personal injury claims. For those who wish to fight back, our legal team at CSCS will be here to help.

Call (202) 644-8303 or contact us online if you wish to speak with an attorney about a recent accident and your rights. CSCS serves clients across Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.