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Oklahoma court deems non-economic damage caps unconstitutional

Those seeking non-economic damages in Oklahoma will no longer be limited by a legislative cap, opening defendants up to further liability in the state.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to reverse a trial court ruling, finding a non-economic damages cap in personal injury actions unconstitutional. In Beason v. I.E. Miller Services Inc., the plaintiff, Todd Beason, was struck by a boom that fell from a crane operated by an employee of I. E. Miller services Inc. Beason underwent two amputations to parts of his arm, and he and his wife filed suit against the defendant. A jury awarded $14 million to Todd Beason and $1 million to his wife, and a “supplemental verdict form” allocated $5 million of the $14 million awarded to Todd Beason as non-economic damages.

The Oklahoma legislators passed a law that took effect in 2011 stating that compensation awarded for non-economic losses in a civil action arising from bodily injury cannot exceed $350,000. Because of this law, the district court reduced the award to a total of $9.7 million: $6 million in non-economic damages and $350,000 to each of the Beasons. The couple then filed a motion arguing the law was unconstitutional.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed, finding non-economic damages “highly subjective and inherently unpredictable,” and added the cap violated Oklahoma’s constitution. The court reversed the trial court’s judgement, reasoning that the cap statute provided different treatment to persons who are killed in an accident and those who survive and accident:

“By forbidding limits on recovery for injuries resulting in death, the people have left it to juries to determine the amount of compensation for pain and suffering in such cases, and no good reason exists for the Legislature to provide a different rule for the same detriment simply because the victim survives the harm-causing event.”

This opinion ultimately upholds the sanctity of a jury and makes it more difficult to value civil cases in Oklahoma, exposing defendants to unanticipated damages at the direction of juries.

It’s likely the legislature will work to impose a limit on damages in future legislation. Throughout changes in the law, we’re committed to keeping our clients informed. Contact MVP to develop a strategy and learn about the impact of dynamic changes in the law.