Senate Likely To Pass Class-Action Reform Bill
The Senate on Thursday likely will pass a class-action lawsuit reform bill (S 5) by a "comfortable margin" after the defeat of a series of Democratic amendments on Wednesday, CQ Today reports (Stern, CQ Today, 2/9). The legislation 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 from state to federal courts 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. The Senate bill represents a compromise by members of both parties that House Republicans, who previously have introduced legislation that included more restrictions on class-action lawsuits, have agreed to support, provided that the legislation passes without amendments (California Healthline, 2/9).
The Senate on Wednesday voted 61-38 to defeat an amendment to the bill sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would have allowed federal judges to select which state laws to apply in multistate class-action lawsuits, rather than dismiss such lawsuits on procedural grounds, the Washington Post reports. Opponents said that the amendment would have risked "letting the legislation die -- as it has in recent years -- in parliamentary standoffs," the Post reports (Harris/VandeHei, Washington Post, 2/10).
The Senate also voted 60-39 to defeat an amendment sponsored by Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) that would have exempted class-action lawsuits filed by state attorneys general from restrictions in the legislation, despite a letter signed by 46 attorneys general that said the bill would interfere "with one means of protecting our citizens from unlawful actions." In addition, the Senate defeated an amendment sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would have exempted class-action lawsuits related to civil rights and labor cases.
In a speech on Wednesday at the Commerce Department, President Bush said that Democrats sought to "amend the bill," adding, "That's code word for they're trying to weaken the bill" (Holland, AP/Las Vegas Sun, 2/9). Bush added, "The Senate has got to pass the bill on the floor without amendment. They need to pass a clean bill, one that makes sense for the American people" (Rogers, Wall Street Journal, 2/10).
Stan Anderson, an official for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and leader of a group that supports the legislation, predicted that the bill would pass in the Senate and House (Washington Post, 2/10).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said, "Everybody's sticking together. I feel pretty good" (Wall Street Journal, 2/10).
Although business groups "widely support" the bill, the legislation is "strongly opposed" by consumer, environmental and civil rights groups, as well as federal judges concerned that "the change could jam their courts with new claims," the New York Times reports (Bumiller/Labaton, New York Times, 2/10). Opponents also maintain that the bill could shift mass tort lawsuits, such as those filed against Merck related to the COX-2 inhibitor Vioxx, from state to federal courts.
"It's certainly conceivable that the legislation could affect Vioxx litigation if any of the state-court judges for Vioxx (lawsuits against Merck) chose to join the cases for trial as a way to get them off their docket," Ellen Relkin, a New York attorney, said.
Kennedy added, "There will be less protection for workers, for their working conditions, for their wages" (Wall Street Journal, 2/10).
According to Joan Claybrook, president of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, "The Senate made it exceedingly clear that its allegiance lies with banks, credit card companies, drug manufacturers, big insurance companies and other major corporations that fund campaigns and don't want to be held accountable for wrongdoing." She added, "The result of this legislation, if enacted into law, will be more abuse and deception of consumers by unscrupulous businesses because consumers will be locked out of the courthouse" (Reynolds/Clarke, Los Angeles Times, 2/10).