Oklahoma Supreme Court: State Can't Limit Lawsuit Payouts for Pain or Suffering
By Dale Denwalt
The cap on some monetary awards given to injured people is unconstitutional, Oklahoma's high court ruled Tuesday.
Oklahoma's Supreme Court said that the law, which reduced a jury's award from $6 million to $700,000 for a crane accident that required amputations on an oilfield worker's arm, isn't fair to people who survive an accident.
James Todd Beason was working on a rig site in Texas when a crane operated by another worker fell on him. It hit his left side, causing severe damage. Beason sued the other worker's employer, I.E. Miller Services, Inc., in Oklahoma County District Court.
The trial jury awarded Beason and his wife $15 million, of which $6 million would be classified as non-economic damages. Unlike damages that are doled out based on the cost of medical bills or the loss of work ability, non-economic damages are more commonly known as pain and suffering.
In 2011, just a year before Beason's injury, Oklahoma lawmakers passed a law that limited non-economic damages to $350,000 as part of a broad reform of lawsuit rules. However, the Oklahoma Constitution prohibits limits to pain and suffering awards when an injured person dies.
That difference, wrote Justice John Reif, is what makes the damage cap a "special law" that favors one class of individual over another.
"The failing of the statute is that it purports to limit recovery for pain and suffering in cases where the plaintiff survives the injury-causing event, while persons who die from the injury-causing event face no such limitation," Reif wrote.
Beason's attorney said that when the jury was asked to set economic and non-economic damages, they weren't told about the cap.
"The jury didn't know anything about that. So that was the basis of our appeal," said the attorney, Ed Abel. "In effect, the law as written was fooling the jury."
The jury said $14 million should go to Todd Beason, and another $1 million should be awarded to his wife, Dara. The jurors then said that $5 million of Todd's award would be counted as non-economic damages, while the trial judge determined that all of the money awarded to Dara would be non-economic.
District Judge Patricia Parrish then lowered each non-economic award to $350,000 in accordance with the law.
"The Beasons are wonderful people, and this has been a major catastrophe to their family. You don't have to have much imagination to see how severe of an injury this was and how it will affect the Beasons for the rest of their lives," Abel said.
(c)2019 The Oklahoman