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How Oklahoma's Cap on "Noneconomic" Damages Can Affect Your Personal Injury Claim

It is not always possible to quantify a personal injury claim. For example, if you are in a car accident, you can calculate your medical bills and lost wages. But what about your pain and suffering? This falls into a legal category known as "noneconomic damages."

In 2011 the Oklahoma legislature-under pressure from so-called "tort reform" lobbyists-imposed a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in most personal injury cases. A jury may still award damages in excess of the cap, however, if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant acted in "reckless disregard for the rights of others," was "grossly negligent," or acted with fraudulent intent or "malice" towards the plaintiff. It is also important to note that the cap does not apply to quantifiable, economic damages.

Nursing Home Waited Too Long to Invoke Cap, Ordered to Pay $1.2 Million

Recently a federal appeals court declined to enforce Oklahoma's $350,000 cap in a case involving the terrible abuse of a now-deceased nursing home patient. Federal courts often hear state-law personal injury claims when there is "diversity" among the parties, e.g. an Oklahoma plaintiff sues an out-of-state defendant. In such diversity cases, the federal court must still apply the "substantive" law of the forum state, although federal rules govern the actual trial.

In this case, the deceased victim's children sued the nursing home for negligence under Oklahoma state law. At trial, the children presented evidence that their mother suffered daily physical abuse at the hands of the defendant's staff for more than three years. The jury returned verdict in favor of the children and awarded $1.2 million in "noneconomic compensatory damages."

After the verdict was read, the defendant moved to reduce the award to $350,000 under Oklahoma's state cap. The judge denied the motion, holding the plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to justify exceeding the cap. The defendant then appealed to the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Oklahoma.

In a September 28 opinion, the Tenth Circuit upheld the trial judge's ruling and the jury's verdict. But the Tenth Circuit did not address whether the evidence justified lifting the cap. Instead, the appeals court said the defendant failed to properly raise the cap as an "affirmative defense" prior to trial; it therefore had "waived" its right to seek a reduction in damages after the verdict. Although the Oklahoma Supreme Court has not addressed this specific issue, the Tenth Circuit "predicted" that is how the state court would interpret the law.

Need Advice From an Oklahoma Personal Injury Lawyer?

Personal injury claims often raise complex legal issues that are confusing to the non-legal person. This is where having an experienced Tulsa personal injury lawyer by your side is invaluable. If you or a loved one have sustained a serious injury due to someone else's negligence and need legal advice, contact the offices of Frasier, Frasier & Hickman LLP today.

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