The Oklahoma Expert Certification Tort Reform Bill: A Good Idea or Does It Not Go Far Enough?

The Oklahoma legislature is currently considering a tort reform bill that would require people wishing to file a civil lawsuit for professional negligence (medical malpractice, accounting malpractice, legal malpractice, etc.) to obtain and attach an affidavit that the person has consulted with a qualified expert who has reviewed the facts of the case. The bill addresses all professional negligence but there can be no doubt that its’ main goal is to reduce the number of medical malpractice lawsuits by prohibiting lawsuits without expert support.

The affidavit must include a statement that the expert has provided a written opinion to support the allegation of professional negligence. If the affidavit is not filed, the lawsuit may be dismissed.

The bill, House Bill 1570, is similar to a bill vetoed by Oklahoma’s governor last year. Six states, including Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New York, and Pennsylvania, already require expert certification before filing a professional negligence lawsuit. The cost of having an expert review medical records and provide a written opinion can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 in most cases. The news story cites an example where an expert charged a medical malpractice victim $12,000 for his pre-litigation expert opinion.

The news story prompted me to post a provocative tweet on Twitter, which then received several comments from Walter Olson of the legal reform website and Chris Davis of the Seattle personal injury law firm, the Davis Law Group.

My original opinion was that the Oklahoma expert certification bill is actually a good tort reform idea because it only requires an injured person to obtain a supporting expert opinion prior to filing suit–something any good and responsible medical malpractice attorney do. To prevail in a claim of medical malpractice, the person alleging the injury must prove that the doctor breached the professional standard of care for their field and that this breach actually caused the injury. To do this, an expert witness in the same field as the defendant doctor must be hired to review the medical records of the injured patient. While the bill places a burden on the injured patient’s right to access to the courts, it merely requires what careful and prudent medical malpractice lawyers already do.

On the other hand, is the Oklahoma legislature ignoring a second equally obvious method of expert certification which would further reduce the waste caused by “frivolous” lawsuits.

In response to my original Twitter post, Chris Davis suggests that the Oklahoma legislature also require defendant doctors obtain expert certification that they did not breach the professional standard of care. In other words, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Mr. Davis points out, rightly so, that a great deal of time, money, and resources are wasted in litigation fighting “frivolous defenses” created by the defendant to muddy the waters at trial. Remember, the injured patient bears the burden of proof at trial. It is a tried and true defense tactic to “throw mud” at trial–to raise irrelevant but upsetting facts–in the hopes the jury will be so confused that they will find for the defendant doctor. Much of the discovery process is spent trying to eliminate as many of these frivolous defenses as possible.

By eliminating the frivolous defense of claiming that the defendant doctor did not commit malpractice–perhaps along with an attorneys’ fees and cost penalty against the doctor if a jury found that the doctor had indeed committed malpractice–the scope of disputed issues would be greatly eliminated, saving litigation costs and judicial resources.

Perhaps the Oklahoma legislature should be encouraged to go one step further in its’ tort reform efforts.

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