May 9, 2019, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

May 9, 2019, Trial News

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Oklahoma noneconomic damages cap is held unconstitutional

Maureen Leddy

photo of the shadow of the scales of justice

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that a $350,000 statutory cap on noneconomic damages for bodily injuries violates the state’s constitution. The court concluded that the cap treats similarly affected people differently without a reasonable explanation. Accordingly, the court reversed a district court ruling that slashed a verdict for a man’s injuries stemming from a crane boom fall based on the cap.
 

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has ruled that a $350,000 statutory cap on noneconomic damages for bodily injuries violates the state’s constitution. The court concluded that the cap treats similarly affected people differently without a reasonable explanation. Accordingly, the court reversed a district court ruling that slashed a verdict for a man’s injuries stemming from a crane boom fall based on the cap. (Beason v. I.E. Miller Servs., Inc., 2019 WL 1772328  (Okla. Apr. 23, 2019).)

Oklahoma resident Todd Beason was working on a Texas oil rig in 2012 when a crane’s boom fell and struck him, causing him severe injuries. He and his wife sued the crane operator’s employer in Oklahoma state court. In 2015, a jury awarded $14 million to Beason and $1 million to his wife. The court instructed the jury to apportion Beason’s damages as economic and noneconomic: It allocated $5 million in noneconomic damages. The trial judge concluded that all of his wife’s damages were noneconomic.

As required under the 2011 Oklahoma statute capping noneconomic damages, the court reduced the noneconomic damages to $700,000 total: $350,000 each for Beason and his wife. The cap does not apply to wrongful death actions. The plaintiffs moved to conform the judgment to the jury’s verdict, arguing that the damages cap is unconstitutional. The trial court denied the motion, and the Beasons appealed.

In considering the cap’s constitutionality, the Oklahoma Supreme Court looked to whether the cap is a special law that treats part of a class of similarly affected people differently without a reasonable explanation. Article 5, Section 46 of Oklahoma’s Constitution prohibits such laws. The cap here limits recovery only for plaintiffs who survive their injuries; personal representatives of victims whose injuries result in death are not affected by the cap.

The court found that plaintiffs who survive an incident and the personal representatives of deceased victims “stand on identical footing with respect to recovery.” Therefore, the court said, “no good reason exists to treat a person who survives the harm-causing event differently with respect to recovery” from a person for whom the event results in death. The court clarified that it was not attempting to encroach on the legislature’s duties in its ruling, but rather had a “solemn yet urgent duty to act” when a “statute is clearly, palpably and plainly inconsistent with the constitution.”

T. Luke Abel, of Oklahoma City, who represented Beason, said he was pleased with the ruling. “The jurors were the ones who sat and listened to the testimony for days, not the politicians who passed this law. Jurors are the ones best situated to decide what is fair and just compensation for a person’s injuries.” Abel added that “it is wrong for a legislature to place an arbitrary cap on an injured person’s ability to recover without knowing the facts involved.”

Robert Peck, of Washington, D.C., who led the Center for Constitutional Litigation’s (CCL) efforts to overturn the cap, said “I am gratified that the court agreed that the cap could not stand and was irremediably constitutionally flawed. Those injured due to the negligence of others should not be treated as pawns in a game that only serves those frequently negligent. The lives of Todd Beason and his wife were radically changed for the worst when the boom of a crane fell on him. While the full measure of the verdict will not give him back the life he once had, it will make his continued care possible and his future somewhat more tolerable.” AAJ provided financial support for CCL’s work on this case.