Oklahoma Passed 3 Major Tort Reforms In 2011

2011 was a big year for tort reform proponents in Oklahoma, as the state passed three laws directly impacting victims of torts. The laws took effect two months ago, on November 1, and they do three main things: cap the amount of money that victims can receive, eliminate joint liability, and instruct juries that awards are not taxable.

The first reform caps the amount of non-economic damages that victims can receive in tort cases at $350,000. Economic damages are those that you can easily provide a figure for (medical bills or lost wages, for example). Non-economic damages include pain and suffering and punitive damages. We will have to watch whether the cap changes. California, for example, has had a $250,000 cap for 37 years now, despite rampant inflation and increasing medical costs since then. As we saw with the Gourley family in yesterday’s post, when the cap is insufficient, the victims and/or the taxpayers end up footing the remainder of the bill. Public benefits programs like disability benefits could end up paying the price when caps like this push costs away from the wrongdoers.

Oklahoma’s second tort reform was to eliminate a legal concept known as joint and several liability. Joint and several liability means that if more than one person harms you, you can sue all the parties involved, and a jury can find them all liable together; that way, defendants cannot avoid responsibility by simply pointing their finger at someone else. Under the new reform, when various parties are to blame, each liable party will have to pay a certain percentage corresponding to its blame.

Finally, the reform provides an instruction to all juries informing them that awards are not taxable. This was to counteract some juries’ adding to awards to make up for the tax consequences. This may not have consequences for many, but it will be interesting for lawyers, since the IRS maintains that punitive damages are in fact taxable whereas some federal courts say otherwise.

Have you received damages for an injury in recent years? Would Oklahoma’s new tort reform laws have had an impact on your case?

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