Oklahoma Supreme Court Strikes Down Legislature’s Cap on Non-Economic Damages. Beason v. I. E. Miller Services, Inc., 2019 OK 28 (April 23, 2019)

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Another measure of Oklahoma’s tort reform legislation was struck down today based upon constitutionality problems. Since 2011, a statutory cap on non-economic damages imposed restrictions on the amount of recovery a plaintiff could obtain for damages such as pain and suffering. 23 O.S. 2011 § 61.2(B)-(F). The cap limited the pain and suffering damages to $350,000.00. But the statute did provide that no cap would apply if the judge and jury found by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant’s acts or failures were in reckless disregard for the rights of others, grossly negligent, fraudulent, or intentional or with malice. It would also not apply to a death case.

In the Beason case, Mr. James Beason showed he was injured by a heavy boom falling from a crane, leading to several amputations on parts of his arm, and liability was proved against the defendant but not to an extent that would lift the cap. His wife also pursued a claim and prevailed as well. The jury awarded $14M total, allocating $6M as representing the actual non-economic damages for the claims brought by Mr. Beason and Mrs. Beason. The statute required a reduction of that amount to $350,000 for Mr. Beason and $350,000 for Mrs. Beason, for a total reduction of the $6M figure down to $700,000.

On appeal, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional as a special law, in that did not apply to the entire class of similarly situated people who bring suit to recover for personal injury. Okla. Const. art 5, § 46. The Court explained that there was no good reason for treating individuals who survive their injuries differently from those who do not, and similarly no sufficiently valid reason for treating those injured by negligent conduct different than those injured by reckless disregard or other conduct more egregious than negligence. The Court stated: “Culpability or lack of culpability has no bearing whatsoever on the extent of the suffering a victim—deceased or surviving—sustains.” 2019 OK 28, ¶ 9.

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