- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Senators say they have reached a deal to get a bill reforming class-action lawsuits that was blocked by Democrats last month through Congress.

Three Democratic senators changed their stances after language was inserted they say better protects consumers while still reining in many frivolous lawsuits and preventing lawyers from “venue shopping” in search of sympathetic judges and juries that award the biggest settlements.

Those supporters now include Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, all of whom opposed the bill last month. The bill was defeated by a single vote in a filibuster lodged by mainly Democrats.

“A bipartisan coalition of United States senators has come together in agreement on language to address abuses in the class-action system while protecting the rights of Americans to get justice through the courts,” said a release issued by backers of the bill. “We look forward to having the full Senate address the legislation at the earliest opportunity.”

The bill is designed to usher more class-action lawsuits into the federal courts and prevent lawyers from guiding their cases to states where judges and juries are viewed as generous to plaintiffs. It will also prevent plaintiffs from getting coupons of little or no value while attorneys make millions of dollars.

“Businesses and consumers victimized by the current system can give thanks tomorrow that the days of class-action abuse are numbered,” U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said yesterday, on the eve of Thanksgiving Day. “We urge the Senate to pass the Class Action Fairness Act at the earliest opportunity.”

“Lawsuits have gotten out of control in America and something needs to be done to rein them in,” Mr. Schumer said. “The agreement that we’ve struck on class-action lawsuits preserves the ability of Americans to bring lawsuits in a fair and reasonable way while doing away with some of the worst abuses.

“This bill would knock out the egregious practice of forum shopping, which allows a local court in a corner of America to make national policy, while at the same time protecting the right of individuals to seek redress on serious cases,” he added.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and one of the legislation’s 15 co-sponsors, said the class-action system “is not just broken, it’s falling apart.”

“Our system has turned into one that only benefits the lawyers — not the legitimate consumers who have been wronged,” Mr. Cornyn said in a statement. “Consumers receive minimal payments or coupons that they may or may not be able to use — while lawyers collect enormous fees.”

Pleased with the compromise, Mr. Cornyn added that he hopes it “will be the first of many successful attempts to reform our civil justice system.”

A similar version of the bill was passed on a 253 to 170 vote by the House earlier this year. Senators said they hope to vote on the new version next month, but others speculated that they won’t get to it until after the start of a new session next year.

“We will not rest until this bill is signed by the president,” Mr. Donohue said.

The Bush administration has listed tort reform as one of its top domestic priorities and the president’s signature would be widely expected.

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