- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - A state legislative panel on Tuesday advanced a measure changing the way Oregon handles class-action lawsuits, setting up a vote in the House that could come as soon as this week.

The measure is a top priority for Democrats, who are using their expanded House and Senate majorities to quickly push through several measures that were blocked in earlier years.

The bill has divided the legal community and drawn passionate arguments from people convinced it either rectifies an injustice or unfairly changes the rules for a high-stakes lawsuit in the middle of the game. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee advanced it to the full House in a party-line vote.

The measure would require BP West Coast Products to pay millions of additional dollars if it loses a pending appeal of a class-action case the oil company lost in Multnomah County. The company was sued over a $0.35 fee charged to customers who used a debit card to pay for gas.

Class-action lawsuits involve a group of people who allege they were harmed in the same way by a defendant. Federal law and most states have their own rules for handling them.

The Oregon bill seeks to identify people who were harmed by the defendant but didn’t submit a claim, which often happens when the person can’t be located or would only get a small amount of money.

The bill would require that at least half of the unclaimed money be spent on legal assistance for the poor, with the rest being used for some other purpose.

Proponents say they’re trying to prevent companies that break the law from keeping money they obtained illegally.

“The fact a victim can’t be found doesn’t undo the harm caused,” Democratic Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Critics, including much of the business community, say it would make it far too easy for plaintiffs to bring class-action lawsuits in Oregon. They say it would require companies like BP to pay damages for people who were never required to prove that they were harmed.

The measure “would seriously erode the stability of Oregon’s legal system by disposing of the well-established rules” for determining how much a defendant should pay, Associated Oregon Industries, a business lobbying group, said in a letter to the committee members.

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