Senate Begins Debate on Class-Action Amendment to Tort Reform Legislation
The Senate on Monday began debate on a proposed amendment to a class-action lawsuit reform bill (SB 5), and consumer groups sought "to garner support for amendments they said would make an objectionable bill somewhat more palatable," the Washington Post reports (Harris, Washington Post, 2/8).
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted 13-5 to approve the legislation, which would shift more class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts. The bill seeks to prevent "forum shopping," a practice under which attorneys file lawsuits in jurisdictions that often favor plaintiffs. The legislation also would shift class-action lawsuits to federal court in cases in which more than $5 million is in dispute or in which plaintiffs and defendants reside in different states. In addition, the bill includes several provisions that would protect plaintiffs from settlements that are more beneficial to attorneys than plaintiffs (California Healthline, 2/4).
One of the most "contentious" of the proposed amendments, introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), would allow federal judges to select which state laws to apply in multistate class-action lawsuits, the New York Times reports (Labaton, New York Times, 2/8). Federal judges often reject lawsuits in which several different state laws apply, and supporters said the amendment would "test whether the real point of changing the rules is to hear more cases in federal court or to guarantee that far fewer cases are ever heard," the Post reports (Washington Post, 2/8).
Consumer, environmental, civil rights and labor groups on Monday "blanketed Congress" to advocate for the amendment as business groups "lobbied hard to defeat it," the Times reports.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who sponsored SB 5, said that he supports the amendment, although Specter aides said that the senator would support the bill regardless of whether the amendment passes. "In moving cases to the federal courts, I do not want to see changes in the substantive rights of consumers and other class-action litigants," Specter said (New York Times, 2/8).
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said, "I think Bingaman has a very good amendment."
The level of support for SB 5 is "thin enough that the defection of even a couple of Democrats could make the bill vulnerable to a filibuster," CQ Today reports. As a result, Senate Democrats on Monday began to draft an alternative to Bingaman's amendment to help "maintain the seemingly filibuster-proof margin of 60 supporters" for SB 5 and avoid "language that would push House Republicans to go ahead with their own bill (HR 516)" rather than the Senate version, according to CQ Today (Stern, CQ Today, 2/7).
House Republican leaders last week said that they would expedite passage of the Senate version of the bill, provided that the legislation passed without amendments. The House in recent years has supported legislation that "would tighten rules on class-action lawsuits even more than the Senate," the Post reports (Washington Post, 2/8).
John Feehery, a spokesperson for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), last week called the amendment proposed by Bingaman a "deal killer" (American Health Line, 2/4). The House version of the bill likely would not pass in the Senate, CQ Today reports (CQ Today, 2/7).