Tawwater: Tort Reform Offers Good, Bad News / Limit to Damages Challenged

Article excerpt

In the eyes of trial lawyers, the tort reform law passed offers good news and bad news, said Larry Tawwater, legislativ e chairman for the Oklahoma Trial Lawyers.

The good points are the reporting requirements and the Unfair Claims Practices Act in the law.

Tawwater said the bill has a provision that gives a judge a mechanism to deal with frivolous lawsuits. In effect it establishes a $10,000 fine.

A judge can assess costs including attorneys fees, up to $10,000, if he or she finds the case was brought or defended in bad faith. The attorneys believe a limit should not have been put on the costs.

"There is provision in the law that clearly states if the court finds the suit was brought in bad faith or was groundless, in effect it was $10,000 fine."

Whether the case is meritous or not may be in the eye of the beholder, Tawwater said. For example, in the segregation case Brown vs. the Board of Education, it could have been a frivolous lawsuit because there was already a law. But when the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, that law was changed.

"There are some cases where it's hard to imagine why the case was filed," he said. "If you talk to judges who hear them day in and day out, most feel those cases are few and far between. Now there is a mechanism for the judge to deal with it.

"That part of the bill we have no objection to."

The trial lawyers' main objection deals with the punitive damage section of the law.

Tawwater has argued from the beginning that nobody has submitted evidence to make a case in support of limits on punitive damage awards.

"They've got to show us why they think people's rights should be taken away," he said.

Furthermore, it's a slap in the face of the jury system, he said.

"They are telling the citizens they are not smart enough to sit as jurors," he said. "They can only return a verdict as high as what the insurance industry wants."

If the citizen is capable of deciding whether somebody is going to die by lethal injection, that citizen should be able to decide punitive damages in a civil case, Tawwater said.

Several studies have been completed containing information on the number of tort cases and the resulting verdicts, but Tawwater said the studies don't prove there is a litigation explosion as the insurance companies have said.

He said the proponents of tort reform are looking at the occasional large verdicts only which are usually given to victims who have been badly injured, paralyzed or suffered brain damage. …