Friday, February 11, 2005

The Senate easily approved the most sweeping tort reform measure in a decade yesterday, the first in a series of bills that the strengthened Republican majority hopes will curb frivolous lawsuits.

The Class Action Fairness Act, which Democrats had denied a floor vote in the last Congress by filibuster, passed on a 72-26 vote.

The bill has two key provisions — one to direct many large class-action lawsuits out of state courts and into the federal system, and another to rein in the multimillion-dollar payments that lawyers receive in such cases.

Proponents say the bill will limit lawsuit abuse, which they blame for many business bankruptcies and job losses, by curbing excessive judgments and ensuring that damage awards benefit plaintiffs rather than lawyers.

“Nationwide class actions no longer will be subject to the legal ruling of one state’s county court,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “Defendants to nationwide class actions will be able to have their claims heard in federal court, where the Constitution intended them to be heard.”

Republican leaders hope the bill’s passage paves the way for future tort-reform measures, such as the medical-malpractice liability bill that has been in the works for years and is a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.

“Today’s passage of the Class Action Fairness Act is a victory for the American people,” said Mr. Frist, who noted that it was the first bill to come to the Senate floor during the 109th Congress. “The bill protects plaintiff’s rights while reining in rampant abuse of America’s courts.”

The bill passed with help from 18 Democrats and the Senate’s lone independent, James M. Jeffords of Vermont. Except for two who did not vote, every Senate Republican supported the bill.

Mr. Frist also told reporters that this bipartisan support “bodes well for the 109th Congress,” but would not say whether it might portend a shaky future for Democratic filibusters against 10 of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

“The judges? I don’t see any ties to any of these bills,” Mr. Frist said. “We have passionate feelings. And Democrats and every senator [have] passionate feelings about them.”

Yesterday’s approval by the Senate essentially ensures that the class-action limitations will become law, since the House comfortably has passed similar legislation in the past and is expected to pass this specific bill as early as next week. Mr. Bush lists tort reform as one of his top priorities and has said he will sign the bill.

Long accused of doing the bidding of trial attorneys, Democratic leaders in the Senate denounced the bill as a sop to big industry and an erosion of people’s legal rights.

“It slams the courthouse doors on a wide range of injured plaintiffs,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “It turns federalism upside down by preventing state courts from hearing state law claims. And it limits corporate accountability at a time of rampant corporate scandals.”

Proponents say directing lawsuits to federal courts will prevent lawyers from “shopping” their cases around the country in search of local judges and juries with a reputation for handing out huge victories for plaintiffs.

The bill also heightens judicial scrutiny of the payments that lawyers get in cases in which their clients, the supposed injured parties, wind up with tiny settlements, such as coupons from the company they have sued.

“Class-action lawsuits are an important part of our legal system,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat and a key supporter of the bill. “All citizens should have the right to band together and settle grievances with bigger companies. But that system is broken.”

In “too many instances,” he said, “consumers are getting very little or nothing from their settlements, while companies are not being forced to change the way they do business.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas said he plans to send the bill to the House floor next week.

“The House passed this important legal reform in the 106th, 107th and 108th Congresses,” said a joint statement issued yesterday by Mr. DeLay and Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, and Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.

“Those efforts died variously at the hands of a minority of Democrat senators and former President Clinton. This time, with a solid bipartisan majority of senators and a reform-minded president, the outcome will be different,” the congressmen said.

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