Senate Judiciary Committee Likely To Approve Class-Action Measure
As President Bush in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night reiterated his call for federal tort reform, action on the issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week "is quickly turning into the political laboratory for what will be doable and what will be difficult," the New York Times reports. In his speech, Bush said, "We must free small business from needless regulation and protect honest job-creators from junk lawsuits. Justice is distorted, and our economy is held back by irresponsible class actions and frivolous asbestos claims -- and I urge Congress to pass legal reforms this year."
According to the Times, the committee on Thursday is expected to "approve by a wide margin" legislation that would move most class-action lawsuits from state courts to federal courts. The measure is expected to be approved by the full Senate next week. The legislation, the first in Bush's tort reform package to be addressed by Congress, is opposed by federal judges who argue that their dockets would become clogged and consumer, environmental and civil rights groups who say that legitimate class-action cases could be dismissed by federal judges if they involve laws of several states. Consumer advocates also worry that the legislation could delay class-action suits because there are far more state judges than federal judges.
According to the Times, supporters of the class-action legislation hope that its "quick adoption ... will provide political momentum" for the remaining two major tort reform proposals: limiting damages in medical malpractice suits and removing all asbestos injury cases from the courts. However, a number of concerns discussed by members of the judiciary committee on Wednesday "threaten to derail the asbestos measure." The measure would create a $140 billion trust fund to pay workers who claim to have been injured from asbestos exposure. Lawmakers are concerned about the growing number of lawsuits filed over exposure to silica from activities such as sandblasting and mining (Labaton, New York Times, 2/3).
According to Bloomberg/Baltimore Sun, since the committee first expressed support for the trust fund in 2000, the number of silica-injury lawsuits increased from fewer than 1,000 to 19,389 in 2003. Medical experts testifying at the hearing said the increase in lawsuits is suspicious because the overall incidence of silicosis has decreased over the past 30 years.
Lester Brickman, a law professor at Yeshiva University, added that many of the workers who claim silica injuries previously filed claims for asbestos injuries, suggesting that lawyers claimed injuries were from silica in case Congress barred asbestos lawsuits (Bloomberg/Baltimore Sun, 2/3). The medical experts testified that it is rare for a person to suffer injuries from both asbestos and silica and that it is easy to distinguish symptoms of diseases resulting from exposure to the substances (New York Times, 2/3).
The congressional proposal would require people filing silica cases in state court to prove their injuries were not caused by asbestos, a provision that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said is "overly broad" and could "jeopardize" an agreement on the trust fund.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, "This is a potential deal breaker because it is very hard to solve," adding, "We do have to preclude dual claims" without barring legitimate silica lawsuits (Bloomberg/Baltimore Sun, 2/3).
Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he hopes to further "refine" the legislative language regarding silica cases (Heil, CongressDaily, 2/2).