The underlying principle behind so-called “tort reform” here can be seen in what’s going on in Wisconsin and other states when it comes to individual and worker rights.
What’s happening is this: States dominated by Republican legislatures and governors are attacking the rights and livelihoods of ordinary middle-class people-and I mean ALL people, not just state workers-while protecting or enhancing the interests of corporations and wealthy people.
Oklahoma has so far avoided Wisconsin-like protests and political conflict, but that doesn’t mean Republican political leaders here aren’t trying to balance the state budget on the backs of workers and educators or that they aren’t pushing for corporate amnesty when it comes to lawsuits. It also doesn’t mean that people won’t someday stand up here in Oklahoma. (Read about how Oklahoma legislators are trying to do away with collective bargaining.)
The Oklahoma Legislature is considering several bills related to lawsuits. One of the bills would cap noneconomic damages at $250,000. This follows a bill passed in 2009 and signed into law by former Gov. Brad Henry that capped such damages at $400,00, with some exceptions.
The more the government caps lawsuit damages, the less access ordinary people will have to a jury trial if they have been injured because of malfeasance. That’s not even debatable. That’s what GOP leaders here and elsewhere want: fewer lawsuits and less money paid in damages, primarily by insurance companies. But the right to a jury trial is fundamental in this country. It helps create a system of checks and balances. Republicans want to dismantle this system so corporations can go unchecked.
Back in 2006, I wrote this about the “tort reform” movement:
There is no such thing as a “tort reform” movement in Oklahoma or elsewhere. What we have is a movement to reward rich people at the expense of ordinary, middle-class Okies, who, if this movement is successful, will no longer get fully compensated for injuries due to negligence.
. . . There is no such thing as “tort reform.” That phrase is a lie passed around by the Republican Party to make sure rich people get even more money. If you buy into it, you are only hurting yourself and family.
This is as valid today as it was five years ago, with an important caveat. Bit by bit, here and elsewhere, the right to a civil jury trial and fair compensation for individuals has been eroded. Do you think the GOP will stop at a $250,000 cap? What will happen next year or the year after that? What about forbidding all civil lawsuits for damages? Could it go that far?
Another heinous bill dealing with limiting people’s rights would force juries to consider the defendant’s other sources of compensation (health insurance, life insurance, etc.) and subtract that from any damage awards. Thus, a company could well go unchecked for malfeasance because an individual was prudent enough to purchase life insurance.
The Oklahoman editorial page, a longtime advocate for lawsuit caps, recently argued this:
A cap on non-economic damages may result in lower settlements for victims and lower fees for trial lawyers, but the greater good is at stake. States that refuse to limit punitive damages are at a disadvantage in competing with states that have caps. This includes the recruitment and retention of physicians and the image projected to the business community.
Follow the logic here. Everyone else is taking away people’s rights so we should, too, because of the “image projected to the business community.” It’s a race to the bottom for “the greater good.” Also, the medical malpractice argument has always been a red herring. There are ways the government could work to reduce insurance costs for physicians without stripping people of their rights and allowing corporations to go unchecked.
As the corporate apologists build up steam in the state legislature this session, the governor has called for a 3 percent cut in education and social services and a 5 percent cut for other agencies to balance next year’s budget. This will mean more layoffs and furloughs for state workers, who are woefully underpaid already. This will also influence the private sector to pay lower wages and benefits for people. Oklahoma is a low-wage state. There’s not a word, not even a small chirp, about raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens. In fact, the state stands poised to cut income taxes again on Jan. 1, which will primarily benefit the state’s richest people.
Oklahoma has its own “Wisconsin” issue, and it’s happening in Indiana, Ohio and other states. It’s about the continuing transfer of money to the country’s wealthiest citizens at the expense of everyone else. “Tort reform,” or, rather corporate amnesty, is a major part on the GOP assault on the middle class.