- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004


After trying to curb class-action lawsuits for years, Republicans finally have enough support to push legislation through the Senate to limit what they call an overabundance of frivolous cases against businesses.

But a decision by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to push forward on that legislation immediately instead of finishing work on a defense bill might end up forcing Republicans to wait even longer before claiming a victory that big business has sought for years.

The Senate will vote today on whether to act immediately on the bill to move more class-action suits from state to federal courts instead of continuing work on the Defense Department’s $422 billion authorization bill. That was the pending business when the Senate recessed for its holiday break.

Several Democrats have promised support to give Republicans the 60 votes they need to move the class-action bill to passage. But those Democrats are expected to refuse to vote to abandon the defense legislation.

“They believe in class-action reform a lot, but they are not going to vote” to skip over the defense bill, said Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

Mr. Frist wanted to put the defense bill off because Democrats are refusing to agree to a limit on amendments, and he wants extra time to negotiate. Moving on the class-action legislation would give him that time.

“The class-action bill does have strong bipartisan support, and we would like to finish that bill in a reasonable period of time,” Mr. Frist said.

The Republican bill would move more class-action lawsuits, in which one person or a small group represents the interests of an entire class of people in court, out of state courts, where juries are often more generous to plaintiffs, and into federal courts, where awards typically are smaller.

Senate Republicans and the corporate community, for whom curbing class-action lawsuits is a major priority, said businesses are drowning in frivolous lawsuits, while trial lawyers profit handsomely by sometimes just threatening legal action.

“We are extremely pleased that after six years, the United States Senate will finally have the opportunity to debate and vote on legislation to fix the country’s broken state court class-action system,” said Stanton Anderson, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who called the bill “moderate and reasonable.”

But many Senate Democrats and other opponents say the legislation only helps businesses escape judgments for wrongdoing.

Federal judges, opponents say, will either throw out many cases or be less likely to issue multimillion-dollar judgments against corporations.

“The Senate proposal is designed to kill the use of class-action lawsuits, which have resulted in decisions that not only provide refunds to consumers and others injured by corporate wrongdoing, but also require changes to business practices that have cheated consumers, workers and even local and state governments,” said a statement from USAction, a liberal, pro-consumer activist group.

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