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Senate Stymies Measure to Shift Class-Action Suits

October 23, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — By the thinnest possible margin, Senate Democrats on Wednesday blocked a bill that would have forced many class-action lawsuits out of plaintiff-friendly state courts and into federal courts that corporate defendants prefer.

Republicans, aided by an all-out push from business lobbyists, fell one vote short of the 60 needed to compel the Senate to take up the class-action bill. The vote was 59 to 39 to break a Democratic filibuster.

The outcome was a hard-fought victory for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and a coalition of consumer groups, trial lawyers and environmentalists. Conversely, it was a setback for business groups and the Bush administration.

It was also the second time this year that Senate Democrats thwarted a major revision of the civil justice system sought by President Bush. In July, they stymied a Republican bill to cap damage awards for medical malpractice.

While the class-action bill could be stalled for the year, its advocates promised another try at cracking the filibuster soon, perhaps within weeks.

At stake were proposed revisions to a form of civil litigation that many plaintiffs use to redress alleged injuries and discrimination. By banding together as a class, plaintiffs can theoretically achieve greater legal clout than if they sued individually.

Class-action lawsuits have proliferated in recent decades -- in state and federal courts. In many cases, though, class-action lawyers seek to file suit in certain state courts considered sympathetic to plaintiffs, a custom critics call "venue shopping."

Critics of class-action suits maintain that federal courts are less likely than their state counterparts to certify a class of plaintiffs in a frivolous lawsuit -- a key step in moving a case toward trial or settlement. Advocates of the suits say that state judges are often more likely to give a fair and rapid hearing to plaintiffs than federal judges burdened by heavy civil and criminal caseloads.

Under the bill considered Wednesday, many lawsuits representing a class of at least 100 plaintiffs would be shunted to federal courts if they seek at least $5 million in damages. If more than two-thirds of the plaintiffs in a case come from the same state as the primary defendant, the litigation would remain in state courts.

Businesses have clamored for a class-action bill for six years, claiming that they are deluged by frivolous lawsuits drummed up by self-interested lawyers. Trial lawyers, who are significant financial backers of the Democratic Party, have fought the legislation just as adamantly.

Even many Democrats who opposed the Republican bill, though, acknowledged that the current system is flawed.

"Do we recognize there's abuse? Absolutely," Daschle said. "But this legislation is like killing a housefly with a shotgun, and there's going to be a lot of collateral damage if it passes."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who cast a critical vote for the filibuster, said he did so "with great reluctance." Dodd added: "I'm deeply committed to class-action reform."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he was disappointed. "We have just witnessed a missed opportunity to address a critically and vitally important issue," he said.

In June, the House approved a similar class-action bill by a comfortable margin, the second time in two years the GOP-led chamber has done so.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote major sections of the bill defining state and federal jurisdiction in class-action cases, supported the effort to break the filibuster. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) voted to sustain it.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democratic presidential candidate, sided with the administration. "There is general agreement that there have been significant abuses, including forum-shopping, of the state class-action mechanism that need to be corrected," Lieberman said.

The other two presidential candidates in the Senate, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- who was a trial lawyer before his election to the Senate -- did not vote.

Eight Democrats and Vermont Independent James M. Jeffords joined 50 Republicans in voting to break the filibuster.

Other Democrats who strayed from the party line were Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, HerbertKohl of Wisconsin and Thomas Carper of Delaware. The lone Republican to vote for the filibuster was Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.

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