- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

This week, the Senate will take up — and we hope pass — a needed measure of class-action reform. Republicans have long championed such measures as critical to fixing the broken system, and considering the newly announced Democratic presidential ticket, now is an excellent moment to do so.

By moving many class-action lawsuits from the state to the federal court system, the Class Action Fairness Act of 2004 (S. 2062) would reduce lawyers shopping for sympathetic state courts. It might also mitigate other lawsuit gaming by lawyers. In doing so, the bill will be of benefit to consumers.

There is ample evidence — both anecdotal and bottom-line — that argues for such reforms. In 2002, the cumulative cost of torts was more than $230 billion, according to a study done by the Tillinghast business of the consulting firm Towers Perrin. The firm estimated that each American pays a tort tax of $809. Winners in court often become losers in settlements. Plaintiffs who successfully challenged the purity of a company’s bottled water received discount coupons for the water, while their attorneys received more than $1.3 million in fees. Plaintiffs received coupons for movie rentals after winning a lawsuit contending that Blockbuster Video’s late fees were unfair. Their lawyers earned $9.25 million in expenses and fees.

Last year, a similar class-action reform bill (S. 274) made it as far as the Judiciary Committee, despite the opposition of Sen. John Edwards, who voted against the bill by proxy. While both Mr. Edwards and Sen. John Kerry subsequently said they opposed the bill, they were absent from the floor when it was filibustered by their Democratic fellows.

The House has already passed a similar version of the legislation (H.R. 1115), and so the Senate bill will again face most of its opposition from Democrats. In addition to the presumed filibuster, which Republicans believe they have enough votes to overcome, Democrats are likely to try to add many non-germane amendments, including one to raise the minimum wage to $7 per hour.

Congressional Quarterly recently called the class-action bill “the remaining Republican hope for a victory this year on the tort reform agenda.” If it is that, it is even more — it is the remaining chance citizens have this year (and possibly the next four to eight years) of reining in trial lawyers and out-of-control juries. The reform bill makes common sense and could save citizens many dollars and cents. The Senate should take this opportunity to pass a clean class-action reform bill.

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