Oklahoma Supreme Court Overturns $350k Damage Cap

May 6, 2019 by matray

In a 5-3 opinion released on April 23, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the state’s $350,000 cap on recoverable non-economic damages is unconstitutional.

According to the majority opinion in Beason v. I.E. Miller Services, Inc., the Court found the noneconomic damage cap to be an unconstitutional “special law” because it limited damages for only those who survive an accident and bring a civil lawsuit. The law did not limit damages for wrongful death lawsuits brought on behalf of the estates of persons killed in accidents. A statute is a “special law” when part of an entire class of similarly affected persons is segregated and targeted for different treatment and is prohibited by Article 5, Section 46 of the Oklahoma Constitution.

“The failing of the statute is that it purports to limit recovery for pain and suffering in cases where the plaintiff survives the injury-causing event, while persons who die from the injury-causing event face no such limitation,” Justice John Reif wrote in the majority opinion.

The Justices noted that the Oklahoma Constitution explicitly forbids any limitation on the amount of recoverable damages for injuries resulting in death. “By forbidding limits on recovery for injuries resulting in death, the people have left it to juries to determine the amount of compensation for pain and suffering in such cases, and no good reason exists for the Legislature to provide a different rule for the same detriment simply because the victim survives the harm-causing event,” according to the opinion. “And the people have demonstrated their intent that the Legislature not discriminate in this way by expressly prohibiting the Legislature from enacting special laws.”

The decision involved a lawsuit filed by a worker whose left arm was amputated following an accident at an oil well. An Oklahoma County jury awarded James Beason and his wife a total of $15 million, including $6 million for pain and suffering. A judge reduced the jury award on noneconomic damages to $700,000 — $350,000 for each of the Beasons — in order to comply with the law.

Upon striking down the damage cap law, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial judge with instructions to enter judgment in the full amount of the jury’s verdict.

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