Chamber Wants Action on Punitive Damage Bill

Article excerpt

Journal Record Staff Reporter

Leaders of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce Industry are sore that a chamber-sponsored bill to tame punitive damage awards will not be heard this year by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

At a legislative briefing luncheon Tuesday for reporters, chamber President Richard Rush said it was a "travesty" that Judiciary Chairman Bill Settle, D-Muskogee, elected not to hear House Bill 2470.

David Rainbolt, chairman of the chamber's Civil Justice Reform Committee, said the bill was "even handed, fair and fundamental _ so it's getting biased treatment.

"The $135,000 the trial lawyers spent in the 1992 election cycle has spoken," said Rainbolt, who is chief executive officer of BancFirst in Oklahoma City.

Contacted later, Settle said he's not hearing any bills on the punitive damage issue because federal legislation is pending. He said the committee would consider bills on the subject next year.

"There are several bills regarding this area, and all of the bills are currently being discussed in Congress," he said. "Probably, there will be legislation passed this year in regard to these areas, and we'll have to take a look at it next year, with the new federal legislation."

House Bill 2470, by Rep. Andy Bass, D-El Reno, would require clear and convincing evidence of wanton and reckless disregard for the rights of another person, oppression, fraud or malice in order to warrant punitive damages.

If the evidence was beyond a reasonable doubt, a jury could award damages "for the sake of example, and by way of punishing the defendant."

Further, a defendant's net worth could not be considered in making a punitive damage award.

"The higher burden of proof would encourage innocent parties to avoid settling frivolous lawsuits and go to court and defend themselves _ without worrying that confused juries would put them out of business," Rainbolt said.

Current law requires a "preponderance" of evidence to make a punitive damage award.

Chamber members felt their bill was even handed because it recognized that punitive damages do have a place in the justice system, Rainbolt said. "There are mean-spirited people out there who should be punished severely, so there was no attempt to put caps on the awards," he said.

Moreover, "the bill didn't address the underlying determination of actual damages," Rainbolt said. "We're dealing literally with the punishment of the defendant."

Beyond the disappointment of not going forward with the punitive damage bill, chamber staff members listed a number of measures they'll be following as the Legislature gets under way on Monday. Following is a thumbnail sketch: The chamber's Small Business Council has recommended that the House Special Committee on Small Business be elevated to full standing committee status. …