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Oklahoma Supreme Court Strikes Down Damage Cap Statute

Apr 26, 2019 - Court Decisions by

In a recent case, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down an Oklahoma statute that attempted to limit or cap “non-economic damages” at $350,000.  The statute, 23 O.S. §61.2, was enacted in 2011.  In Beason v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc., 2019 OK 28, the plaintiff was injured after a boom from a crane fell and hit him.  As a result of the incident, he underwent two amputations on parts of his arm.  He sued the operator of the crane, and was awarded $14,000,000.  His wife was awarded $1,000,000 on her loss of consortium claim.

The jury determined that $5,000,000 of the $14,000,000 was non-economic damages.  The trial judge determined that all of the wife’s damages were non-economic in nature.  The damage cap was applied to the non-economic damages, and a total judgment of $9,700,000 was entered.

The plaintiffs appealed the trial court’s reduction of the jury verdict.  The Supreme Court, after retaining the appeal for nearly three (3) years, determined that the damage cap violated Oklahoma’s prohibition on “special laws.”  The Court stated that Article 5, Section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitutional “requires uniformity of treatment when like-situated litigants arrive at the courthouse door:  “[C]ourt procedure [must] be symmetrical and apply equally across the board for an entire class of similarly situated persons or things.”  The Court found that the law was impermissibly “special” because it limited “pain and suffering” damages when the plaintiff survived the ”injury causing event,” but did not limit such damages in cases of “wrongful death.”  The Court stated:

If a decedent can recover without limitation for pain and suffering during the time between the harm-causing event and his or her death, no good reason exists to treat a person who survives the harm-causing event differently with respect to recovery for the very same detriment.

The Court rejected the notion that the cap could be sustained because it could be lifted when the defendant acted with recklessness, gross negligence, fraud or with intent and malice.  The Court stated that the degree of culpability of the defendant’s conduct was not related to the extent of the plaintiff’s damages:

The shared experience of everyday life teaches that a collapsing brick wall can inflict bodily injuries on one person that result in death and bodily injuries on another person that do not result in death, and that the resulting pain and suffering in each case can be substantially the same.  Pain and suffering do not vary depending upon the source of the collapse and do not care if the source of the collapse is the result of a tornado, an earthquake, a terrorist act, intentional conduct, negligent design, or strict-liability activity.  Culpability or lack of culpability has no bearing whatsoever on the extent of the suffering a victim–deceased or surviving–sustains.

The Court held that the people had vested the “jury with constitutional responsibility to determined the amount of recovery for pain and suffering” in both wrongful death and personal injury actions, and the Legislature was prohibited from enacting a “special law” that treats those actions differently.  The Court remanded the case and directed the trial court to “enter judgment in the full amount of the jury’s verdict.”

The decision in Beason is not yet final.  However, it is consistent with numerous previous opinions of the Court that effectively prevent the Oklahoma Legislature from enacting laws affecting the rules and procedures in personal injury litigation.