Okla. governor orders special legislative session

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Monday ordered lawmakers to convene for a special session on Sept. 3 to consider restoring laws overturned by the state Supreme Court that were designed to cut businesses’ legal liability costs.

The first special legislative session since Fallin took office in 2011 will be limited to restoring a bill adopted by the Legislature in 2009 that was designed to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits and medical malpractice claims filed in Oklahoma.

In June, the state Supreme Court invalidated the law in a 7-2 decision, saying it violated the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution and amounted to logrolling, or the passing of legislation that contains multiple subjects.

In issuing the executive order for the special session, Fallin said the civil justice legislation was designed to make Oklahoma more business friendly and protect physicians from frivolous lawsuits. It was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by former Gov. Brad Henry.

“Oklahoma’s lawsuit reform measures are part of what makes this state attractive to businesses and allows us to retain and recruit doctors,” Fallin said. “Those laws are now under attack.”

The Republican governor said the alternative to calling a special session was to wait until lawmakers convene in February, a delay that would add more uncertainty to the state’s legal landscape.

“In the weeks since the court ruled our laws unconstitutional, at least a dozen lawsuits have been reopened against hospitals, doctors and other employers,” she said. “As lawmakers, we need to act now to protect our businesses and our medical community from frivolous lawsuits and skyrocketing legal costs.”

The special session call was criticized by the Democratic leader of the state Senate. Sen. Sean Burrage, D-Claremore, said calling a special session to revisit the issue “is a waste of both time and taxpayer dollars.”

“At a cost of $30,000 per day, we are looking at spending close to $250,000 to fix a problem created by the Republican majority,” Burrage said. “It is clearly an issue that can wait and be addressed in the next legislative session.”

Fallin resisted calls by some lawmakers to add other issues to the special session, including possible changes to the Insure Oklahoma health care program so it might qualify for federal money to increase the number of working poor who have health insurance. The program is set to expire at the end of the year.

Burrage criticized Fallin for excluding the issue and said GOP leadership “has its priorities wrong” if it believes the civil justice issue is more important than providing access to health care.

“If the governor and the Legislature stand idle on this issue, 30,000 hard working Oklahomans who have access to health care through Insure Oklahoma will lose that coverage as they ring in the New Year,” Burrage said. “Because of that deadline, this is something we literally cannot wait until 2014 to address.”

Fallin said lawmakers interested in affordable health care should also be interested in restoring the civil justice measures.

“Legal costs and predatory lawsuits are a driver of rising health care costs,” Fallin said. “If we allow the floodgates to be opened for a host of new medical malpractice suits, health care premiums will rise and health care will become less affordable.”

The 2009 legislation made a number of changes to how lawsuits are filed and litigated in the state, including redefining what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit and strengthening summary judgment rules that make it easier for a judge to dismiss a lawsuit that has no legal merit.

The bill changed joint and individual liability guidelines to alter so-called “deep pocket” rules that had allowed an injured person to recover all damages from any defendant regardless of their individual share of liability. The measure also capped pain and suffering damages at $400,000 but allowed a judge or jury to waive the cap in cases of gross negligence or catastrophic injury.

The state’s highest court said the bill violated the constitutional requirement that legislation pertain to a single subject to ensure that Oklahoma legislators and voters are aware of a measure’s potential impact.

Two dissenting justices handed down an opinion that said the Legislature and the public understood the purpose of the legislation to be lawsuit reform.

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