Oklahoma Supreme Court Declares Noneconomic Damage Cap Unconstitutional

April 23rd, 2019

     The Oklahoma Supreme Court declared a $350,000 cap on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases unconstitutional today, in a CCL case. The Court held the $350,000 limit to have an "irremediable constitutional flaw," because the Oklahoma Constitution prohibits caps on damages in wrongful death cases, and this statute treated those who survive negligent injury less favorably. As a result, the Court found the statute to be a prohibited "special law."

     To explain the discrimination, the Court used the example of a collapsing brick wall. If one person is injured and eventually dies from those injuries, that person is entitled to the full verdict for noneconomic damages, as found by the jury. However, if a second person survives with catastrophic injuries, that person's recovery is limited, even though the person might live for decades with the consequences of the injury.

     In the underlying case, Beason v. I.C. Miller, Todd Beason was injured when the boom of a crane fell on him. His serious injuries included the need for two amputations of his arm.

     CCL served as co-counsel in the Oklahoma Supreme Court with the Abel Law Firm, which also tried the case.

Supreme Court Preserves Victory of Railroad Crossing Preemption Issue

April 22nd, 2019

     The U.S. Supreme Court denied the railroad's petition for certiorari in BNSF Railroad Co. v. Nye today, marking the end of the case in which CCL served as Supreme Court counsel. 

      The case involved the death of an eighth-grade science teacher after his car was struck by a BNSF train. His widow asserted that the train was negligent because of the railroad's failure to post adequate warning signs of the crossing, its failure to trim vegetation that obscured the line of sight so a driver could see the approaching train, and the train's failure to sound its horn as it approached the crossing, as required by law. An Oklahoma jury found the railroad liable, and that determination was affirmed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

      The railroad argued that it could not be held liable for its failure to post adequate warning signs because the signs at the crossing was part of a federally funded program in the 1970s. If that were true, participation in the program preempts claims for inadequate warnings. However, the railroad's evidence of federal funding was weak and rebutted by strong evidence that federal funds were not used at the crossing. The trial court submitted the question on the competing evidence to a jury. The Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the jury's determination.

     The railroad asked the Supreme Court to revisit the question and lessen the burden of proof that the railroad needed to qualify for preemption, particularly in light of how long ago the railroad crossing sign was said to have been posted. It further asked that the Court hold that the factual determination of federal funding be treated as a legal, rather than jury, question. Alternatively, the railroad asked the Court to seek the opinion of the Solicitor General of the United States on whether the case should be taken, or to hold the case while the Court decided a drug-preemption case that also involved a jury's determination of facts.

     The denial of certiorari today means that the Court did not take up any of the railroad's entreaties, and the case is over. CCL President Robert S. Peck served as counsel of record in writing the brief in opposition to certiorari.