OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law 23 bills on Tuesday to overhaul the state’s system for filing and handling civil lawsuits, including a measure some legal experts say creates an unconstitutional barrier to the courts.
Fallin announced she signed each of the bills sent to her by the House and Senate following a five-day special session to change the state’s tort laws.
“It’s important to address the lawsuit reform immediately in order to maintain Oklahoma’s image and reputation of being a business friendly state and to also protect our businesses and jobs from what I would call job killing lawsuits that we’ve seen in our state in the past,” Fallin said.
Fallin, a Republican, called the special session after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in June that a sweeping 2009 bill to overhaul the state’s tort laws was unconstitutional because it included multiple subjects in a single bill. In a separate ruling, the court also determined a requirement that plaintiffs in professional negligence cases file an expert’s affidavit also is unconstitutional because it is a special law that creates a “monetary barrier” to the courts.
That requirement, known as a certificate of merit, narrowly passed the House on Monday with opposition from both parties. The new mandate, which supporters say was modified to address the court’s concerns, now requires plaintiffs in any case in which expert testimony will be provided to obtain an expert’s affidavit. The changes also eliminate a filing fee and allow a plaintiff who is indigent to have the expert’s affidavit requirement waived.
“I think they’ve addressed all the issues that the court brought up,” Fallin said.
But many legal experts say the law still provides a barrier to court access in violation of the Oklahoma Constitution, said Guy Fortney, the current president of a group representing trial attorneys, the Oklahoma Association for Justice.
“The number of cases that don’t require expert testimony is so small that they’ve virtually put a bar up for everybody who feels they’ve been wronged and is going to bring an action in state court where they’re going to need the services of an expert witness,” Fortney said. “You still have created a special class of plaintiff with an extra burden on them before they can access the court.”
The rest of the bills deal with a wide range of legal procedures in areas like medical malpractice, class-action lawsuits and product liability, among others.
Most of the bills will take effect immediately with the governor’s signature. However, four of the measures, including the certificate of merit bill, did not receive the necessary two-thirds vote in the House to take effect immediately. As a result, those bills will take effect in 90 days.