By Attorney Therese Ure & Law Clerk Nicole Widdis
This session, the Oregon Senate passed Senate Bill 311 legislation to amend the Oregon Tort Claims Act (OTCA). The OTCA limits the amount of money damages a plaintiff can receive from a state entity in a civil wrong (aka tort) case. OTCA passed originally in 1967 without limits on tort damages committed by state actors such as officers, employees and agents of the state entity. The 1991, OTCA amendments eliminated tort claims against public officers, employees or agents, when the tort arose from an omission occurring in the performance of a duty. These amendments additionally required the state entity or public body, in lieu of the individual, to be substituted in a lawsuit as the sole defendant.
After 1991, the OTCA effectively left many tort plaintiffs in the position of suing solely the public body. Additionally in section 30.270, the OTCA limited the recoverable damages to a range of $50,000.00 to $500,000.00 (depending on the number of plaintiffs and types of damages). Parties brought suits arguing these statutory limitations violate the Remedy Clause of the Oregon State Constitution, Article 1, Section 10. This section states that “…every man shall have remedy by due course of law for injury done him in his person, property or reputation.” However, in 2002 the Oregon Supreme Court found in Jensen v. Whitlow, that the OTCA on its face (in other words, as written), was not unconstitutional.
In December 2007, the Oregon Supreme Court determined the OTCA violated the Remedy Clause of the Oregon Constitution when applied to a medical malpractice case. In Clarke v. Oregon Health Sciences University, the plaintiff’s damages totaled over $17 million. However, OTCA party limitations required Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) to be substituted as the sole defendant. The damages recoverable by the plaintiff under these OTCA limitations capped the damages to $200,000. The Court determined that the statute as applied in this case clearly denied the plaintiff a constitutionally sufficient remedy. However, the Court went on to say the OTCA is constitutional as written. The Court ruled that while it was legal for the legislature to limit OTCA remedies, it was not permissible to eliminate the ability of the plaintiff to sue individual defendants (OHSU employees) whose negligence might have caused the injuries.
In 2009 the Oregon Legislature addressed this ruling in Senate Bill 311 which amends certain parts of OTCA, and repeals the previous statute setting damage limitations. New damage limits range in the millions rather than thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the new legislation widens the number of parties a plaintiff in these tort cases may sue, and sets the damages limits with respect to the state, officers, employees and agents acting within the scope of their employment or duties. The legislation will regulate liability limits for the state and other public bodies, and makes clear that OHSU, a state entity, is covered by the legislation. The OTCA legislation does not allow punitive damages.
Finally, the new legislation creates a legislative Task Force to study the impact of the new legislation and the operation of other laws governing tort liability of public bodies. The new laws will take effect July 1, 2009.
Sources: Oregon Senate Bill 311, 75th Oregon Legislative Assembly. Clarke v. Oregon Health Sciences University, 343 Or. 581, 175 P.3d 418 (2007). Jensen v. Whitlow, 334 Or. 412, 51 P.3d 599 (2002).