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Caps on Non-Economic Damages Ruled Unconstitutional in Oklahoma

Caps on Non-Economic Damages Ruled Unconstitutional in Oklahoma

Last week, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a state law that capped monetary damages for pain and suffering in personal injury lawsuits at $350,000.

The Court ruled that a statute adopted in 2011 which limited non-economic damages in personal injury lawsuits to $350,000 is an unconstitutional special law that treats people who survive injuries differently than those who do not. The state constitution prohibits caps on damages for injuries that cause death, the ruling stated.

According to the majority opinion, “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,” according to the opinion in which five of the court’s nine justices concurred.

The underlying lawsuit that prompted the Court’s decision involved a worker whose left arm was amputated at an oil well site when the worker was struck by a boom from a crane in March 2012. An Oklahoma County jury in 2015 awarded the worker and his wife a total of $15 million, including $6 million for pain and suffering. A judge then reduced the jury award on non-economic damages to $700,000 — $350,000 for each of the worker and his wife — in order to comply with the law.

This recent decision follows a number of other state high courts, including Georgia and Florida that have rightfully struck down caps on non-economic damages as an unconstitutional violation of all Americans’ right to a trial by jury. 

The foundation of America’s jurisprudence was built upon the principle that states have the power to establish a constitutional right to a trial by jury in civil cases. Historically, a jury of one’s peers has decided both the question of liability and the question of how much damages to award in tort cases, subject to instructions on the law by a judge. But in the past couple of decades, pro-business, corporate backed legislators have passed laws to arbitrarily cap damages to insulate their corporate constituents from having to pay full and fair compensation for what are often-times the most substantial and life-altering injuries they inflict – not the physical injuries they cause, but the substantial ways in which those injuries change a person’s life forever. 

State courts are already empowered to reduce excessive verdicts where appropriate in light of the evidence, but caps reduce damages by operation of law, without regard to the specific circumstances of the case. Critics of caps contend that legislatures that pass caps violate the separation of powers by imposing arbitrary damage caps on juries, who function as part of the judicial branch of government.

Oklahoma is the latest Court to agree with that sentiment.

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