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U.S. Chamber Ranking Shows Oklahoma Courts System Balancing Pro-Business Climate, Individual Rights

The classification of Oklahoma’s state liability system as “moderate” by the United States Chamber of Commerce shows that Oklahoma has been successful in striking a balance between maintaining a positive business climate and protecting the rights of everyday Oklahomans to seek justice in the courts, Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Morgan said Wednesday.

Morgan pointed to a recently released study by the United States Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform which lists Oklahoma among 15 “moderate” states and ranks Oklahoma’s system of civil justice above all but two states in the region.

“Moderate is probably not a bad place to be because when you’re reforming the state’s civil justice system you have to balance your desire to be as business friendly as possible with the Constitutional rights guaranteeing every citizen access to the courts. Being moderate says to me that we have that balance in Oklahoma,” Morgan said.

Morgan said passage of Governor Henry’s Lawsuit Reform proposal, as included in an amended version of House Bill 1554, would improve Oklahoma’s civil justice system without going too far and severely limiting the rights of Oklahomans to seek justice when they are harmed by the actions or neglect of others.

House Bill 1554 passed the Senate Wednesday by a 26-22 vote and is headed to a Senate-House conference committee.

Study after study, the Senate Leader said, has listed Oklahoma among the most business friendly states in the country – a record Oklahoma has accomplished without limiting the public’s access to the courts.
The U.S. Chamber’s 2005 State Liability Rankings Study that Morgan cited Wednesday is a result of a survey by Harris Interactive Inc. of more than 1,000 attorneys who defend large corporations against lawsuits.

The study ranks Oklahoma’s state liability system 32nd in the nation, well above the neighboring states of Louisiana (47), Texas (44), Arkansas (43), Missouri (40) and New Mexico (38). In the region, only Kansas and Colorado rank above Oklahoma.

“Considering these rankings by a decidedly pro-business organization like the U.S. Chamber, it’s hard for me to understand the claims that our state is losing business to Texas and other states in the region because of tort reform. If a business is basing its location decisions on the court systems in competing states you’d think they’d be asking their lawyers which states are better and which states are worse.

“The U.S. Chamber study shows that corporate attorneys rank Oklahoma’s liability system ahead of the systems in five of the seven neighboring states,” Morgan said.

The study ranked all 50 states in 10 different categories. Oklahoma ranked best, 26th in the nation, in both laws dealing with punitive damages and the fairness of state juries. By comparison, Texas ranked 39th in punitive damages and 44th in the fairness of juries.

“The people who make their living protecting the interests of big business, say that Oklahoma’s laws and juries are far fairer in the way that they hand out judgments than our neighbors in Texas,” the Senate leader said.

Proponents of the lawsuit reform overkill measure proposed by House Speaker Todd Hiett want Oklahomans to believe that restricting their access to the courts will help Oklahoma catch-up with states like Texas and Mississippi.

“Republicans in the Legislature tout the reforms passed by Texas two years ago and by Mississippi last year and suggest Oklahoma should follow their example. But this report shows that those reforms have done very little to improve the corporate view of Texas and Mississippi. Since 2003, Texas has managed to move up from having the fifth-worst liability system to the seventh-worst. Mississippi’s reforms didn’t change its rank at all. It’s still ranked as the worst system in the country,” the Stillwater Democrat said.

Additionally, Morgan said, no local jurisdiction in Oklahoma ranked among the 25 worst in the nation in the study.

Comparatively, Dallas and Houston were both in the top 25 and enough other Texas jurisdictions were included on the list to make Texas rank third as the home of the most local jurisdictions judged to be among the least fair and reasonable litigation environments in country.

Also, in the region, St. Louis and other local jurisdictions in Missouri were listed by corporate attorneys among the worst, as were a number of jurisdictions in Louisiana.

“Oklahomans need to ask themselves if they want to be No. 1. Does our state really want to be judged by corporate attorneys as the state where everyday citizens have little or no chance of finding justice in the courts?” Morgan asked.

“Oklahomans are reasonable practical people. Oklahoma juries are reasonable and practical. Our state laws should continue to reflect their moderate views.”

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