Lawsuit reform legislation appears dead this session. Attempts to get a lawsuit reform measure took a tumble Thursday when the House author of the bill pulled his proposal from consideration while it was being debated. Rep. Daniel Sullivan, R-Tulsa, pulled Senate Bill 156 after Republicans joined Democrats to defeat an amendment that would have let voters decide whether to cap contingency fees at 33 percent instead of 50 percent for attorneys in personal injury cases. SB 156 is generally the same lawsuit reform measure — sometimes called tort reform — vetoed last year by Gov. Brad Henry. "We will not bring it back up,” Sullivan said. "We have the same governor that we had last year. Even if we got this over to the Senate, there hasn't been any indication that the governor has been willing to sit down and discuss the issues, so why spend any more of our time here when we have other bills we have to deal with?” Rep. Rex Duncan, R-Sand Springs, argued against the amendment, saying SB 156 should be left intact and legislators should force the governor to either veto it again or sign it. "This is a political stunt in an election year and I'm ashamed that my party's part of it,” Duncan said. By the time the amendment came to a vote, Republicans, who outnumber Democrats 57-44, were joining Democrats to vote it down. The amendment failed, 63-32. About 10 minutes into debating the bill itself, Sullivan announced to Speaker Pro Tempore Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, that he wanted to pull it from consideration. Thursday was the deadline for Senate bills to be passed out of the House. SB 156 is dead, but the bill's language could be inserted into a bill that is being considered by a conference committee. "I don't see that happening,” Sullivan said. Earlier this month, Sullivan at the last minute inserted his tort reform language into SB 156. The 133-page measure was placed into SB 156, a bill that dealt with small hospitals.
How do bills compare?Similarities in SB 156 and last year's measure include capping noneconomic damages, which generally are for pain and suffering, at $300,000. It also would limit a jury to award punitive damages only if it found intentional or gross negligence by clear and convincing evidence. Henry in vetoing last year's measure said he concluded several provisions of the bill were unconstitutional, and it unduly restricted Oklahomans' ability to seek justice. He also thought it did not do enough to curb frivolous lawsuits. Sullivan said his amendment to let voters decide whether to lower contingency fees wasn't a stunt. "One of the things that we may have to do in order to get tort reform passed in this state is to take individual sections and submit those to a vote of the people,” he said. However, to let voters decide on the entire contents of SB 156 probably would take 25 to 30 different ballots, he said, because each section would require a separate ballot.