- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Lawmakers have embarked on a new strategy to curb the lawsuits they blame for skyrocketing medical prices, insurance rates and other costs.

Instead of finding one fix-all solution, a Republican-led group in Congress is introducing a broad array of smaller changes — such as blocking obese people from suing food companies — to rein in lawsuits.

“It’s like taking lots of little bites out of the apple,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and sponsor of a bill to limit the fees trial lawyers take home.

“It’s been put off way too long to protect one industry — trial lawyers — at the expense of many others,” Mr. Stewart said.

Among the changes being sought are:

• The Patients First Act, that seeks to cap noneconomic damages in most cases at $250,000 in medical lawsuits. Democrats filibustered the bill last month, but more votes are expected on the Senate bill this year.

• The Class Action Fairness Act, that would prevent lawyers from shopping cases around to find judges or juries most likely to give them huge awards by directing more lawsuits into federal courts. The House bill passed in June and the Senate is still working on its version.

• The Intermediate Sanctions Compensatory Revenue Adjustment Act, that aims to cap the fees taken by lawyers in massive settlements such as the tobacco litigation. The Senate bill was turned back earlier this year, but sponsors hope to find another way to get it through.

• The Commonsense Consumption Act, that would protect food companies from lawsuits filed by fat people who blame their obesity on the companies. The House already passed the bill and the Senate version awaits action in the Judiciary Committee.

“Unfortunately, a personal-injury lawyer’s desire for a big payday by any theory imaginable is never satisfied,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and majority whip, said last month when he introduced the “fatty suit” bill. “And so I come yet again to speak about tort reform — an issue I have worked on nearly every year that I’ve been in the Senate.”

Washington attorney John P. Coale, one of the architects of the lawsuits against tobacco companies, scoffed at the proposed measures, calling them Republican giveaways to “corporate America” and insurance companies.

“All this does is give more advantages to corporate America,” he said. “Do you want a jury to decide your case, or a bunch of politicians in Washington?”

He said deregulation of industries means “there’s very little left anymore protecting consumers from corporate America.”

Counters Mr. Stewart: “None of these bills take away the legitimate right to sue. Instead of barring the door to the courthouse, they unclog it so consumers with real injuries can get in to have their cases heard.”

Mr. Cornyn’s bill to rein in the fees lawyers get from massive settlements, for example, would still allow lawyers to go home with fees “five times their hourly rate for billable hours” meaning over $1,000 per hour.

“These reforms only seek to fix the extreme cases such as the multibillion-dollar settlements that pay only the lawyers and not the consumers,” Mr. Stewart said.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, sponsored the bill to ban court shopping of class-action lawsuits. He cited a suit against Blockbuster Video in which, he said, lawyers earned $9.2 million while plaintiffs got $1 coupons off their next movie rental.

His favorite example, he said, was a case in which Chase Manhattan Bank was sued, resulting in $4 million for the lawyers. Each plaintiff was awarded a settlement check of 33 cents — but had to pay 34 cents in postage in order to claim the check.

Mr. Coale warned against “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

“Sure, I could find a dozen ridiculous awards,” he said. “But I also could find thousands of reasonable ones. There simply aren’t enough of the frivolous ones to throw out the whole system.”

Instead, Mr. Coale blamed a “nation of incompetent judges” who already have “all the tools they need to throw a lot of these cases out.”

“There are nutty judges and nutty juries out there,” he said. “And when you get them in the same room, you sometimes come up with nutty verdicts.”

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