Oklahoma lawmakers completed a brief but intense special session Monday by approving 23 separate bills aimed at deterring frivolous lawsuits and making Oklahoma a more business-friendly state.
Gov. Mary Fallin and business and legislative leaders all praised lawmakers for acting quickly to protect the state's economy and business community.
“My thanks go out to our lawmakers for passing these measures that will protect our businesses and our medical community from frivolous lawsuits and skyrocketing legal costs,” Fallin said in a news release. “These measures will help to keep jobs in Oklahoma and further our reputation as a business friendly state ... This is a big win for Oklahomans.”
Fred Morgan, president and chief executive officer of The State Chamber, lauded lawmakers for their efforts.
“Having a pro-business climate in Oklahoma is critical to our state's continued growth,” Morgan said in a prepared statement. “I applaud our legislative leaders and governor for recognizing this important need to reinstate lawsuit reform and working swiftly to address it in special session.
“These bills … will help reduce frivolous lawsuits in Oklahoma, allowing businesses to grow and health care costs to remain affordable.”
The measures passed during the special session were pulled from a 2009 law that the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down in June for violating the constitution's single- subject rule, which prohibits bills from focusing on more than one subject.
While some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioned the necessity of using taxpayer dollars to call a special session for lawsuit reform, most of the bills passed easily. The special session lasted five days at an estimated cost of $30,000 per day.
While the state Senate unanimously passed all 11 measures it took up Monday, a bill that would require the filing of certificates of merit in negligence lawsuits involving expert testimony passed the House by the bare minimum number of votes.
A certificate of merit is an opinion by an expert that a case is not frivolous.
House members rejected the emergency clause on the certificate of merit bill and three others, so they will not go into effect until 90 days after the close of the session, providing they are signed by the governor.
The other bills on which the emergency clause was rejected concerned rules governing dismissals of claims, rules for expert witnesses and contract breaches under the Uniform Commercial Code.
Expected to be signed
Fallin is expected to sign most, if not all, of the bills. The 19 bills that contain the emergency clause will take effect immediately after she signs them.
Language in the certificate of merit bill has generated the most controversy, both in the courts and the Legislature.
In a June ruling, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found the certificate of merit provision was unconstitutional, stating it created a barrier to the courts and that it was a special law pertaining only to professional negligence cases.
The court said it was a barrier because certificates of merits from experts can cost thousands of dollars.
The Legislature refined a waiver process for indigent people in hopes of resolving the court access problem.
State lawmakers also changed the bill's language from professional negligence cases to all negligence cases involving expert witnesses in an effort to correct the special law problem.
“The specific intent of this bill is to try to reduce nuisance lawsuits,” said Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, who presented the bill on the House floor.
“It has been pursued in a bipartisan fashion for 10 years, and there's a frustration with the court that they have interpreted, that they have found so many reasons in the Constitution to stop this from happening.”
While Republicans are optimistic they have properly addressed the court's concerns, many at the Capitol contend the bill again will be found unconstitutional.
“When the dust clears, we're going to see that this special session did nothing,” said state Rep. David Perryman, D-Chickasha.