Oklahoma Lands Spot as Judicial Hellhole

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Today, the American Tort Reform Association made a midyear addition to its annual “Judicial Hellholes” report and announced that Oklahoma has been added to the “Judicial Hellholes” list.

The announcement comes amid a year fraught with litigation from the state attorney general, liability-expanding decisions from the state’s highest court and failure on the legislature’s part to address the problem in a meaningful way.

Oklahoma’s Attorney General Mike Hunter is in a legal battle against Johnson & Johnson, claiming the company created a public nuisance and is responsible for the opioid crisis. However, Hunter opposes the use of public nuisance allegations in climate change litigation, previously stating, “You cannot litigate what legislators refuse to legislate and regulators refuse to regulate.”

Use of a public nuisance claim with regard to solving the opioid crisis has been unsuccessful in other states, including in North Dakota where a judge dismissed a claim against Purdue Pharma. If AG Hunter is successful in his public nuisance claim against Johnson & Johnson, Oklahoma’s interpretation of public nuisance law will become a national outlier.

“Manufacturers of all products would view a victory for the state in this case with great concern,” ATRA President Tiger Joyce said. “Its applicability likely would grow as states look for additional sources of funding for public health problems.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that undermine the legislature and diminish its power by striking down existing laws or interpreting them with disregard for their plain meaning.

The court expanded liability for all by deeming unconstitutional the legislature’s limit on noneconomic damages, also referred to as “pain and suffering” damages.

“The Oklahoma Supreme Court clearly ignored well-established legal precedent in this incident, as a majority of state and federal courts that have considered the issue have upheld these sorts of damage limits,” Joyce said.

Despite historically addressing issues through legislative reforms, the Oklahoma legislature now fails to pass commonsense reforms to help alleviate the growing problem. For much of the early 2000s, the state was a national leader in enacting reform legislation to ensure a fair and balanced judicial system.

“The Oklahoma legislature’s current inability to pass commonsense reforms is a sharp contrast when compared with its past legislative accomplishments,” Joyce said. “Legislative support for legal reform has declined at a time when Oklahoma desperately needs it.”

The cost of the U.S. tort system, historically the most expensive in the world, was approximately $429 billion in 2018 and creates billions in loss of personal income.

“Expansion of liability, if not reined in, will surely expand costs to the system and in turn result in loss of jobs, and companies may eventually choose to relocate to a state whose legal environment is more predictable,” Joyce said.

To read the report with full details regarding Oklahoma’s new status as a Judicial Hellhole, visit JudicialHellholes.org.

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Contact: Bailey N. Griffith
202-682-0084
bgriffith@atra.org