- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

President Bush yesterday called top lawmakers to the White House and urged them to move quickly on legislation to curb class-action lawsuits as part of a three-pronged effort to reduce litigation that costs Americans billions of dollars each year.

“Class-action lawsuits have become a problem in the United States. The judicial system is not fair. It is unbalanced, it is tilted,” Mr. Bush said after meeting with a dozen Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate.

“And members around this table understand that, and members around this table are willing to set aside their political party to do what is right for worker and business owner alike.”

Mr. Bush said he was optimistic that the Republican-controlled Congress will pass the legislation promptly.

“It is very possible that a good piece of legislation can move quickly this year out of both the Senate and the House, get it to conference quickly and get it to my desk quickly, to show the American people that both parties are willing to work together to solve problems,” he said. “We have a problem with class-action lawsuits. It is a problem that we all recognize, and it’s a problem we intend to fix.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said class-action legislation will be the first introduced in the Senate this session. The bill has bipartisan support, although a Republican measure died in the Senate last year. That bill would have moved 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 and into federal courts, where awards typically are smaller.

“There’s a very good chance … of getting a class-action reform bill done,” said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, after the meeting.

In his first week back in the White House after the holiday break, Mr. Bush is pushing to move forward with limits on lawsuits. On Wednesday, he traveled to Illinois to urge Congress to act quickly on the issue.

“Our tort system has become a needless disadvantage for American manufacturers and entrepreneurs,” he said in Madison County, Ill., a community named by the American Tort Reform Association as the nation’s worst jurisdiction for such suits.

The county is a magnet for asbestos litigation, with 953 cases filed in 2003, 884 in 2001 and 411 in 2000, ATRA said.

The number of class-action lawsuits filed in another Illinois county, St. Clair, in the past two years has increased by 1,100 percent.

Since 1973, manufacturers have been held liable for asbestos problems at the workplace, resulting in more than $54 million in litigation awards — more than half of that going as fees to lawyers, ATRA said. Asbestos litigation has led to at least 74 bankruptcies, according to the group.

Mr. Bush campaigned heavily on the issue, frequently condemning “frivolous” lawsuits in his speeches. A report released this week by the financial services company Tillinghast says the U.S. tort system cost $246 billion in 2003, which translates to $845 per person.

Such lawsuits result in what critics call a “tort tax,” in which legal liabilities drive up costs of consumer goods. According to the 1991 book “The Liability Maze,” litigation costs add $500 to the price of each new automobile sold in the United States.

Still, some consumer groups contend that curbing class-action lawsuits would help businesses escape responsibility for wrongdoing. Some Democrats say Americans have no other recourse but banding together to bring class-action suits against huge corporations.

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