OKLAHOMA CITY — James Todd Beason unwittingly became the face of failed legislative efforts to put more restrictions on monetary damages awarded in personal injury cases.
The 41-year-old Yukon man was working to move an oil rig on March 16, 2012, in Wheeler, Texas.
An employee of another company was using a crane to move a heavy load when the 80-foot boom, or arm of the crane, came crashing down on Beason.
He was knocked unconscious and air-lifted to a hospital in Amarillo, Texas. He ultimately had to have two amputations on his left arm, lives daily with severe nerve pain and has several other health complications as a result.
“It has been grueling,” he said. “Losing my arm was bad, but the nerve pain is what pretty much took control of me. It is like a thunderstorm going through my body 24 hours a day.”
He received a settlement through workers compensation for a portion of his salary. His medical expenses were covered. But Beason said he will never work again at the job he loved.
He sued the other company in Oklahoma County District Court and won. He and his wife were awarded $6 million for pain and suffering, also called noneconomic damages. They also got $9 million in economic damages.
But after the jury awarded the damages, the judge reduced the pain and suffering portion to $350,000 each for him and his wife based on a controversial 2011 law that capped the amount.
The overall award was reduced from $15 million to $9.7 million.
After a protracted legal case, the Oklahoma Supreme Court on Tuesday tossed out the cap, saying it was an unconstitutional special law.
Criticism from the State Chamber and lawmakers was swift.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the state’s high court has previously shown a dislike of lawsuit reform and uses the prohibition against special laws to throw out legally sound bills.
State Chamber President and CEO Fred Morgan said by tossing out the law, the judicial branch has sent a message to job creators not to come to Oklahoma, where they will risk a lawsuit with uncapped damages. Morgan asked when the Legislature will do something to “curb judicial activism.”
“I would say that the people on the other side of tort reform have very good sound bites,” said Luke Abel, Beason’s Oklahoma City attorney. “You know, any time things don’t go their way, it is about activist judges, bad for business, doctors are going to be run out of our state. All of our insurance premiums are going to go sky high.
“I don’t believe it. And I don’t believe they believe it, but that is how they sell it to the public.”
Caps on noneconomic damages have the most impact on people who can’t claim an economic loss, he said. They are retirees, stay-at-home moms and children, Abel said.
“If they don’t have an economic claim to bring, the only claim that can be brought is noneconomic damages,” he said.
An economic claim includes loss of future earning ability.
“The system is about recovering compensation, recovering money for those who have been injured,” Abel said. “You take the money out, lawyers are not going to be able to handle it because lawyers are spending their own money, their own time. If it doesn’t make economic sense, we just can’t do it.”
Beason said his jury wasn’t told there was a limit on damages until after the award. The judge then reduced the award to follow the law.
He said he will never forget the reaction of the jury when they were told about the cap.
“Grown men and women came outside and were in tears,” he said. “I remember a gentleman came up and he was bawling. He was crying. He said, ‘We thought we were doing the right thing. We thought we were taking care of you and your family.’”
Beason, a father of three, calls himself a “blue collar guy.” He said the thing he doesn’t understand is that a jury has been given the confidence to determine the fate of an accused murderer, which can include the death penalty. But under the system he had to navigate, lawmakers didn’t put that same faith in his jury.
“It is impossible to put a cap on noneconomic damages,” Beason said. “Each case, each situation is different. So how can a politician step in and say, well, regardless of your injury, regardless of what has happened to you regardless of what you did before, your pain and suffering is only worth $350,000.
“I feel very strongly about this. It is just morally not right for any politician or individual to step in and put a cap on somebody’s livelihood that has been taken away.”
Beason, who grew up in Hugo in southeastern Oklahoma, said that before his accident, he and his family were active in the outdoors, camping and going to the lake. He was an avid bow hunter and enjoyed fishing.
All of that has been taken away, he said.
“Anything I do revolves around my pain,” he said. “There is no making plans for dinner. There is no making dates. There is no making plans for anything.
“I don’t know day-to-day what my pain level is going to be. There are mornings I can’t even get out of bed.”
Abel said he generally believes the Oklahoma Supreme Court gets cases right.
“Thank goodness we have the Supreme Court to save us from what the Legislature did,” Abel said.