Oklahoma lawmakers begin special session Tuesday on state's civil lawsuit system

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma legislators who return to the state Capitol on Tuesday to begin a special session for an overhaul of the state's system for filing civil lawsuits could find some of the heavy lifting on "tort reform" bills already completed.

House and Senate officials say several pieces of a comprehensive 2009 bill that was struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court were addressed by the Legislature in later bills and shouldn't have to be revisited again in the special session.

These areas of law include some of the more contentious issues, including caps on damages for pain and suffering and determining liability in cases with multiple defendants.

"After visiting with our legal staff and some of our members who have more expertise in this area than I do, it's my understanding that we don't need to readdress those and that those subjects remain good law," said House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, who predicted the special session will last five or six business days.

It is the first time since 2006 the Legislature has been called into a special session and the first time Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has called legislators back since taking office in 2011.

Republicans maintain the special session is needed to prevent the reopening or filing of dozens of new lawsuits and to provide more certainty in the legal environment to businesses and industries. But Democrats maintain the special session, which costs the state nearly $30,000 each day, is a waste of time and money in order to placate the business community.

The Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009 was a major piece of legislation that imposed new limits on lawsuits and made it easier to dismiss cases without merit.

Approved by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by former Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, the bill addressed numerous areas of civil law, including class-action lawsuits, product liability, negligence, frivolous lawsuits, damages, and volunteer liability. But the state's highest court tossed out the changes in the law because they said legislators violated the single-subject rule in the Oklahoma Constitution that requires bills to address only one subject.

"The solution is to break up that 2009 lawsuit reform bill into many different bills, all addressing one subject, and to pass them individually," said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz. "To put it in terms that people understand, we're essentially copying and pasting small chunks of a larger, older bill into smaller, newer bills."

Thirty separate bills — half in the House and half in the Senate — have been drafted and will be expedited through the legislative process to avoid having full committee hearings, a move that has rankled the minority Democrats who say that Republicans are trying to rush the bills to the Fallin's desk.

"Many of the members of the House were not in office in 2009, yet we're all expected to rush this legislation through as if we're fully informed, without committee hearings, conference committees, the 24-hour amendment process, or the full array of safeguards granted legislation during regular sessions," said House Democratic Leader Rep. Scott Inman, D-Del City.

Although Democrats are outnumbered 36-12 in the Senate and 72-29 in the House, they still could impose some roadblocks to the Republicans' hope of a smooth special session.

For example, in order for the bills to take effect immediately with the governor's signature, the Legislature would need to get a two-thirds vote in the both chambers on an emergency clause, including at least 68 members in the House.

Without it, the bills wouldn't take effect until three months after Fallin signs them.

Some Democrats say they have no plans to help Republicans pass the bills at all, let alone support the emergency clauses.

"What incentive is there for us to vote for the emergency clauses?" asked Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. "They treat us like dogs all during the session, and now all of a sudden they need us and they're asking for our help? They don't want any discussions, they don't want any debate. They want to ram it through. Well, it's not going to happen. They may get there, but they're going to have to work for it."

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