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Major decision overturns recent legislation on monetary cap in civil injury cases

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Kevin D. Gordon is an attorney with Crowe & Dunlevy.
Kevin D. Gordon is an attorney with Crowe & Dunlevy.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently decided that the cap on some monetary awards given to injured people in civil cases is unconstitutional. What are the details of this decision?

In an opinion containing lengthy dissents, the Oklahoma Supreme Court narrowly held that Oklahoma’s statutory cap on “noneconomic actual damages” violates the Oklahoma Constitution. The lawsuit involved serious bodily injuries suffered by the plaintiff, Todd Beason, when he was struck by the boom of a negligently operated crane, leading to amputations on parts of his arm. An Oklahoma County jury awarded Mr. Beason $14 million and his wife $1 million.

Under Oklahoma law, the jury was then required to allocate its $14 million award to Mr. Beason between economic damages and “noneconomic” damages, such as pain and suffering. The statute the court found unconstitutional limits noneconomic damages to $350,000 — unless the judge and jury find by “clear and convincing evidence” that the defendant’s actions were reckless, grossly negligent, fraudulent, intentional or malicious. Such a finding requires a higher level of proof than a simple “preponderance of the evidence” of negligence.

The jury found that $5 million of its $14 million award to Mr. Beason were noneconomic in nature, and the judge found all of Ms. Beason’s damages were noneconomic. This led to the reduction of the Beasons’ combined $15 million award to $9.7 million — $700,000 of which were for noneconomic damages ($350,000 for each of the Beasons).

What’s the argument the court used to rule the decision unconstitutional?

The Oklahoma Supreme Court held the noneconomic damage limit of $350,000 (absent the special findings noted above) make the statute an impermissible “special law” — one that arbitrarily and unreasonably treats part of an entire class of similarly affected people differently. The court contrasted the cap on noneconomic damages in the Beasons’ bodily injury case with uncapped noneconomic damages available in otherwise identical wrongful death cases.

This decision goes against recent tort reform legislation to cap noneconomic awards, and some consider it “judicial activism.” What is this legislation and how does this decision affect that moving forward?

The Supreme Court’s decision does strike down a pillar of recent tort reform legislation. The application of the constitution’s “special law” attack is a recurring theme in recent cases. This case will surely not be the last word on the subject from the increasingly divided court.

Paula Burkes, Business writer

Paula Burkes

A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma... Read more ›

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