Okla. Royalty Owners Protest Tort Reform Measure Requiring Opt-In for Class-Action Lawsuits

Article excerpt

After retiring from his job at the bank in Cyril, out in the Oklahoma Panhandle, Homer A. Thompson turned to cattle ranching. His income is supplemented by royalty payments on mineral rights he owns. But when he received notice in the mail a few years ago notifying him that he was considered part of a class-action lawsuit, he tossed the notice in the trash.

"We're rural folks, a lot of us are older, and we're just not interested in lawsuits," said Thompson of himself and several other mineral owners he knows.

He didn't have the time or inclination to decipher the legal notice. But when a check came in the mail some time later, he was glad to see it.

"It wasn't a lot of money, not enough to change my life or anything, but it was enough to use," said Thompson. "A lot of us are on a limited income. Just $100 to some of them is as important as $1 million is to a big oil company."

For someone who makes $30,000 a year, for instance, a $3,000 check represents fully 10 percent of their income.

Thompson and other mineral rights owners are up in arms over Senate Bill 507, the tort reform measure rapidly making its way through the Legislature. But lawmakers who support the bill and its proposed restrictions on class-action lawsuits say the issue comes down to lawyers who don't want to work hard.

Under current law, potential members of a class-action lawsuit would have to specifically ask to be left out of the lawsuit, or "opt-out"; otherwise, they are automatically considered part of the lawsuit. SB 507 would turn it around so that potential members would have to opt-in, asking to be included.

Mineral owners fear the change would drastically reduce the size of classes, since most people would respond as Thompson did and toss the notice in the trash. But state Sen. Owen Laughlin, R-Woodward, said the situation isn't as dire as some might say.

"This bill will not kill royalty owners' class-action lawsuits," said Laughlin. "But it will require attorneys to put forth a little more effort."

The defendant in a class-action lawsuit is required by law to disclose the names and addresses of all potential class members. An attorney concerned about the size of the class would put in the time to call those people and explain to them why it is important to opt- in to the lawsuit.

But mineral owner Jackie Slatten - a constituent of Laughlin's and of state Rep. Gus Blackwell, R-Goodwell, said she wants her legislative representatives to know they should be ashamed of themselves for supporting SB 507.

"I think we out here in Beaver County should bring them home," said Slatten. …