Monday, March 31, 2008

by Steve Fair
Will we get meaningful lawsuit reform in Oklahoma this legislative session? The State Senate is evenly divided, so reform will depend on Governor Henry. According to Co-Chair of the Senate Judicial committee, State Senator Jim Williamson- R,Tulsa, “A meaningful lawsuit reform bill is doable this year if the governor will get engaged in the process and make a formal counter-offer to the bipartisan proposals he rejected last year.”

In last year’s session, the legislature passed a bipartisan bill that included most of the tort reform proposals Henry had previously agreed to, but the Governor vetoed it with little explanation. A month later, Henry went fishing in Mexico with a bunch of trial attorneys, who had lobbied against his signing of the bill. Many in the media tried to connect the dots, but because most of the public was not paying attention, Henry’s fishing trip and the veto connection never gained traction. But the average Oklahoman better start paying attention to the tort reform issue for two reasons

First, the lack of lawsuit reform is hurting health care in Oklahoma. Survey data from the Oklahoma Alliance of Physicians for Tort Reform show that threat of lawsuits has nearly twenty percent of the state’s physicians considering leaving the state. Sixty percent of doctors in the Sooner state have stopped performing riskier procedures and delivering babies in order to avoid lawsuits.

It’s difficult enough to recruit physicians to rural Oklahoma. But when you have lack of lawsuit reform, it compounds the problem. Texas, who passed tort reform four years ago, is attracting physicians from non-reformed states like Oklahoma. In fact, Texas is having a difficult time keeping up with requests for new medical licenses.

When Governor Henry vetoed last year’s bill, it drew the attention of the nation’s largest business newspaper. In their 5/10/07 edition, the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled The Sooner Back Flip which stated, “Mr. Henry has been claiming to support reform for three years, and at one point he promised to "out Texas" Texas on the issue. Then again, Mr. Henry is himself an attorney and was elected with the help of trial bar donations. He may also have assumed he'd never have to act on his promises because a heretofore Democratic Senate could always be counted on to kill any reform.” Henry’s true colors were revealed last year after the Senate passed a tort reform bill and he vetoed it. The only industry in Oklahoma that would be negatively impacted by tort reform is the trial attorneys and it appears the Governor is firmly in their corner.

Secondly the average Oklahoman should be concerned about the lack of lawsuit reform because it hurts Oklahoma in recruiting business to our state. Directorship magazine ranks Oklahoma’s legal climate as 44th in the country. The issue of lawsuit reform is very important to business leaders.

In a 2006 interview in Directorship, Bernie Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot said, “When we started Home Depot years ago, everything we did was a risk. When we doubled in size, it was a major risk. If we had to worry about being sued every inch of the way, or worry about a board that was not willing to back us, we could never have become what we are.” Marcus said he could not start Home Depot today because of the increased governmental regs and out of control lawsuits. Lack of lawsuit control is a red flag to business and Oklahoma has the reputation that we cater to the trial attorneys.

If we want employers to expand in Oklahoma or relocate to Oklahoma, it will require the legislature taking on the trial attorney lobby. Oklahoma finally has a legislature in place willing to talk about tort reform, but unfortunately the Governor seems to be more interested in fishing than he is in Oklahoma health care or business interests.

Senator Williamson has extended the olive branch to Henry. Williamson says, “There was a lot of talk last year by the governor and his surrogates about how close an agreement was, yet Gov. Henry still has not provided legislative language to show what he supports. If he truly wants to reach an agreement on lawsuit reform, it is time for Gov. Henry to put his cards on the table.”

“Cards on the table” is a term Blackjack Henry can understand. After all, the Guv has been the primary advocate for the expansion of gambling in our state but it remains to be seen if Blackjack is willing to gamble his future political contributions to help the state move forward. The smart money is on the trial attorneys- after all they go fishing with him and they are willing to double down.

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