Individuals’ Rights to Seek Justice Harmed by Tort Reform Laws

by | Nov 21, 2013 | Medical Malpractice

The word reform usually has a positive connotation. But the special session conducted by the Oklahoma legislature on tort reform had a detrimental effect on any individual or family that is injured and needs access to the Oklahoma court system to seek relief.

In September, Oklahoma lawmakers convened a special session to revisit previous laws that the Oklahoma Supreme Court had struck down in June as unconstitutional. At the urging of special business interests, lawmakers approved legislation to restrict personal injury lawsuits in the state. The changes affect people who file suits seeking compensation for injuries allegedly caused by others’ negligence.

The legislature revamped a controversial requirement that plaintiffs in certain cases of professional misconduct obtain certificates of merit before they can go forward with lawsuits. A certificate of merit is a report by an expert finding that a negligence lawsuit is legitimate and worth the court’s time.

In June, the state Supreme Court scrapped a similar certificate of merit provision, asserting that the certificate of merit requirement would create a monetary barrier to citizens’ access to the court system. The court found the requirement unconstitutional, largely because expert opinions can cost thousands of dollars, and plaintiffs in medical malpractice, professional negligence, and other personal injury lawsuits may not be able to afford them.

The governor’s office stated that the number of medical malpractice lawsuits had dropped 39 percent since the earlier laws were passed in 2009. Does anyone believe that the number of medical errors committed by doctors and hospitals has dropped 39 percent in Oklahoma City and Tulsa since then?

Among those affected by this requirement was a woman who sued a hospital in Hugo, Oklahoma. The woman, who entered the hospital with pneumonia, said the hospital staff neglected to reposition her in a hospital bed, resulting in an ulcer on her tailbone.

Her attorney obtained an extension of time to obtain a certificate of merit from a medical expert in Texas. But the hospital raised questions about the grounds for the extension, and her case was thrown out. “I feel like I got railroaded,” the woman said. “I feel like I was cast aside because I didn’t know anything.”

Legislation revamping the requirement passed the Senate and the House of Representatives. Certificates of merit will be required in certain civil cases starting in December.

In this instance, tort reform is a blatant effort by certain business interests, including the medical community, to protect themselves from valid lawsuits and make it harder for people who have valid personal injury claims and medical malpractice claims to hold those at fault accountable. Obtaining a certificate of merit is another hurdle that injured people will have to overcome.

You can expect there to be lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the newly passed laws. The changes in the law underscore the need for people who have been injured by defective products, medical malpractice or auto accidents to have skilled personal injury lawyers on their side.