- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon legislative Democrats voted Tuesday to change the way the state handles class-action lawsuits, a move that is likely to add millions to the price tag of a suit that the oil company BP lost last year.

Democrats say their bill would prevent companies that break the law from keeping the tainted money they illegally earned. They approved it over strong objections from Republicans, who said it would become far too easy to bring large lawsuits in Oregon and would unfairly change the rules for the BP lawsuit after the jury’s decision.

The state Senate approved the measure in a 17-13 vote, with one Democrat, Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, joining all Republicans in opposition.

The bill goes next to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who is “supportive,” said a spokeswoman, Melissa Navas.

In a statement late Tuesday, BP vowed to keep fighting. “HB 2700 marks a fundamental shift in 40 years of class action law in Oregon and raises a number of complex issues for the courts,” said the statement from Geoff Morrell, BP’s chief US spokesman. “We will challenge it.”

Class action lawsuits involve multiple plaintiffs who allege they were harmed in the same way by a defendant, usually a corporation. If the company settles the lawsuit or loses at trial, it is required to make a payout to all the people who have been harmed.

On large cases, there are often thousands of people entitled to a payout who never claim one because they can’t be located or because the amount of money they’d receive doesn’t justify the effort.

Democrats say they want to make sure businesses don’t get to keep the money they’d owe those people who don’t claim their portion of the judgment. They say they’re not targeting BP or trying to help trial lawyers, who are significant supporters to Democratic campaigns.

Based on the public debate, “you would think that this is a bill that’s about lawyers, or legal procedures, and to me, noting could be further from the truth,” said Sen. Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland. “This is a bill that will affect the lives of real people. People who have been wronged.”

Under the bill, class-action defendants would have to pay the unclaimed money toward another cause. At least half would have to go toward legal services for the poor, and the rest, at the judge’s discretion, could go to a charity.

Republicans and business interests contend the bill would require businesses to make payouts to charities on behalf of people who weren’t actually harmed. And they say it would unfairly change the rules in the middle of the game for lawsuits already in progress.

“This bill also would have an impact on a case already adjudicated and sitting on the judge’s desk,” said Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg. “This is not the way we do things in Oregon.”

A Multnomah County jury last year said BP West Coast Products broke the law when it charged customers a fee to use an ATM card at its Arco and AM-PM gas stations. The company was ordered to pay $200 to each of the more than 2 million people estimated to be affected. It’s appealing the verdict.

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