At a time when Tulsa and Oklahoma City are enjoying an economic renaissance, the state's business climate and reputation took a blow to the head, thanks to a tort-reform veto by the governor. What could possibly be worse for Oklahoma's economic development than a Wall Street Journal editorial page lambasting of the governor over tort reform?
The WSJ is the daily bible of the world's business community. So when it says Oklahoma is "38th on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's rankings of state liability systems" and that our "malpractice premiums are high," common sense leads one to believe, somewhere, some corporate planner crosses Oklahoma off his or her list of expansion sites.
This isn't the first time the WSJ has put the world's business community on notice about Oklahoma's business climate. We made headlines when former state Sen. Stratton Taylor invited Texas trial lawyers to sue in Oklahoma.
Supporting or opposing tort reform often depends on whether you are a business owner or customer. Put simply, it comes down to who should be responsible for reimbursing someone who has been harmed deliberately or carelessly, or who has suffered some sort of loss. Battles are fought over how much someone should be reimbursed for losses and whether that person should receive additional dollars to penalize the business for what happened.
Auto accidents, slip-and-fall accidents, and medical malpractice claims often result in people missing work and enduring pain and suffering along with medical expenses. Arguments arise over how much is enough to award someone and who should decide. Lose a leg in a car accident and your life is changed forever. Should you be compensated for what you might have earned had you not been injured? Corporations and physicians have paid out billions for insurance and as a result of jury decisions. The costs in Oklahoma and nationwide are so high, many doctors decide to quit practicing.
Legitimate and illegitimate lawsuits have resulted in jury awards that any reasonable individual would consider excessive, such as the Washington, D.C., judge earning more than $100,000 a year who sued his dry cleaner for $65 million because they lost his pants! If a judge will make that weird a claim, imagine what the rest of us could dream up! Lawyers get paid a percentage of what they win for us. So, it's no surprise they say the loss of someone's pants resulted in "mental suffering, inconvenience and discomfort."
Business owners often point out that lawyers actually go looking for clients or groups of people to join a class-action suit to make the claim for a larger award. Lawyers argue they are helping those who can't help themselves against the big corporation who created the product that caused the injury. Business owners argue, why should the lawyer reap millions in fees if the goal was to help the injured? The battle comes over what's reasonable for the injured and the lawyer. Business owners see tort reform as a necessity if for no other reason than to minimize the costs of defending themselves against the jackass who thinks the loss of his pants is a $65 million offense.
As a business owner, I've been on both sides. I have been sued in cases where mistakes were made, and we paid. I've also sued and won when we were wronged. There is a middle ground on tort reform. The governor claims he supports tort reform. If he really wants Oklahoma's economy to grow and our kids to find jobs here, then get with the Legislature and let's give the WSJ something good to say about Oklahoma.
Orza is dean of the MeindersSchool of Business at Oklahoma CityUniversity.