Oklahoma Supreme Court Strikes Down Tort Reform Measure

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has struck down a requirement that an affidavit of merit  from an expert be filed with medical negligence lawsuits.

The statute at issue "requires that a plaintiff alleging medical malpractice attach an affidavit to the petition stating that the plaintiff: 1) has consulted with a qualified expert; 2) has obtained a written opinion from a qualified expert that the facts presented constitute professional negligence; and 3) has determined, on the basis of the expert’s opinion, that the malpractice claim is meritorious and based on good cause. Plaintiffs may petition the trial court for an extension for filing the affidavit of merit not to exceed ninety days. The request must be accompanied by a showing of good cause. Although the defendant may obtain a copy of the expert’s opinion, upon which the affidavit of merit is based, the opinion is inadmissable at trial and may not be utilized in discovery."

The requirement was struck down as a violation of a provision of the Oklahoma Constitution that provides that ""The Legislature shall not except as otherwise provided in this Constitution, pass any local or special law … Regulating the practice or jurisdiction of, or changing the rules of evidence in judicial proceedings or inquiry before the courts."

In addition, the law was struck down because the cost of obtaining the affidavit – $500 to $5000 – creates an unconstitutional financial barrier to access to the courts guaranteed under the Oklahoma Constitution.  The Court said as follows:

 "Although statutory schemes similar to Oklahoma’s Health Care Act do help screen out meritless suits, the additional certification costs have produced a substantial and disproportionate reduction in the number of claims filed by low-income plaintiffs. The affidavit of merit provisions front-load litigation costs and result in the creation of cottage industries of firms offering affidavits from physicians for a price. They also prevent meritorious medical malpractice actions from being filed. The affidavits of merit requirement obligates plaintiffs to engage in extensive pre-trial discovery to obtain the facts necessary for an expert to render an opinion resulting in most medical malpractice causes being settled out of court during discovery. Rather than reducing the problems associated with malpractice litigation, these provisions have resulted in the dismissal of legitimately injured plaintiffs’ claims based solely on procedural, rather than substantive, grounds.

 Another unanticipated result of statutes similar to Oklahoma’s scheme has been the creation of a windfall for insurance companies who benefit from the decreased number of causes they must defend but which are not required to implement post-tort reform rates decreasing the cost of medical malpractice insurance to physicians. These companies happily pay less out in tort-reform states while continuing to collect higher premiums from doctors and encouraging the public to blame the victim or attorney for bringing frivolous lawsuits."  [Footnotes omitted.]

And it went on to say this:

"This Court does not correct the Legislature, nor do we take upon ourselves the responsibility of legislating by judicial fiat. However, we are compelled to apply Oklahoma’s Constitution. It has long been the policy of the Oklahoma Constitution, the statutes and this Court to open the doors of justice to every person without distinction or discrimination for redress of wrongs and reparation for injuries. Although art. 2, §6 does not promise a remedy for every wrong, it requires that a complainant be given access to court when a wrong suffered is recognized in the law.

Treating medical malpractice plaintiffs with rules inapplicable to all other negligence claimants interjects a degree of arbitrariness which sabotages equal access to the courts. Section 1-1708.1E creates the potential for a medical expert to usurp the functions of the judiciary and the trier of fact. The requirement that a medical malpractice claimant obtain a professional’s opinion that the cause is meritorious at a cost of between $500.00 and $5,000.00101 creates an unconstitutional monetary barrier to the access to courts guaranteed by art. 2, §6 of the Oklahoma Constitution. "  [Footnotes omitted.]

The case is Zeier v. Zimmer, Inc.,  2006 Ok. 98 (12/19/06).  Read it here.