- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Trial lawyers will be limited from shopping class-action lawsuits around state courts in search of favorable judges under a bill passed yesterday by the House.

Tailored after a bill now winding its way through the Senate, the House bill — passed on a 253 to 170 vote — requires more class-action suits be filed in federal courts as opposed to state courts, which have developed a reputation for granting huge verdicts in sometimes-questionable cases.

“The class-action judicial system itself has become a joke,” said F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican. “And no one is laughing except the trial lawyers — all the way to the bank.”

Congressmen on both sides of the aisle agreed yesterday that some reforms are needed to rein in frivolous lawsuits, but they disagreed mightily over the Republican effort to do so.

On the House floor yesterday, Democrats accused Republicans of doing the bidding of big corporations that are often the target of class-action suits.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, said that there are “undoubtedly” abuses in the system. But, he said, the Republican bill “is about protecting the powerful at the expense of the powerless.”

“Remember the Firestone case and the tobacco case,” Mr. Delahunt said. “It was class-action lawsuits that revealed the ugly truth.”

Republicans, in turn, accused Democrats of opposing the legislation at the behest of the powerful and wealthy trial lawyers who make the most money from the lawsuits.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, introduced the bill and trotted out several instances in which class-action lawsuits ended in huge fees for lawyers and pittances for members of the class that suffered injury in the first place.

In a lawsuit against Blockbuster Video, he said, lawyers earned $9.2 million while the plaintiffs got $1 coupons off their next movie rental. In a lawsuit against Bank of Boston, lawyers earned $8.5 million in fees, he said, while the victims wound up having to actually pay money at settlement.

Mr. Goodlatte said his favorite example was a case in which Chase Manhattan Bank was sued, resulting in $4 million in lawyer fees. Each plaintiff was awarded a settlement check for 33 cents, but they had to pay 34 cents in postage in order to claim the check.

Such lawsuits have increased more than 1,000 percent in recent years in state courts, said Rep. Melissa A. Hart, Pennsylvania Republican. And in some courts viewed as generous to plaintiffs, the number of cases have risen nearly 2,000 percent.

After hearing Republican charges against “greedy” trial lawyers, Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat arose and said, “Welcome to ‘Bash the Trial Lawyers Day’ in the House of Representatives.”

He then turned to Mr. Sensenbrenner and said, “I just keep wondering, Chairman Sensenbrenner, what kind of law did you practice?”

Anthony D. Weiner, New York Democrat, opposed the bill and noted the “self-flagellation by all the lawyers in this body.” He also said that the contingent of House members who didn’t go to law school would later meet in a phone booth.

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