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Prop. 64 Backers Fight for Attention

A busy ballot is a hurdle for businesses that aim to limit citizens' rights to file suit against them.

November 01, 2004|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — An all-star list of businesses has poured more than $15 million into a campaign to pass Proposition 64, an initiative aimed at limiting citizens' rights to file lawsuits under the state's Unfair Competition Law.

But the bankrolling of television advertisements by big companies -- including Microsoft Corp., Target Corp. and Pfizer Inc. -- may not spell victory Tuesday for a coalition of large and small employers that wants to stop what it calls "shakedown lawsuits."

The most recent survey by the Field Poll showed that only 40% of respondents knew about Proposition 64. After being read the official title and summary that will appear on the ballot, 37% of those polled said they would vote no, 32% said they would vote yes, and 31% were undecided. (The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.)

The fact that so many voters appear to be unsure about the initiative at this late stage doesn't bode well for its passage, said Mark DiCamillo, the poll's political director.

"In the final stages," he said, "the undecideds tend to break on the 'no' side."

Proposition 64 would amend the state's 70-year-old Unfair Competition Law, which allows people to sue businesses to stop unfair and deceptive business practices even if they haven't been personally harmed. The initiative would require a person to have suffered injuries or financial or property losses before he or she could sue.

Activists who oppose the initiative are counting on the size of the ballot, packed with the presidential battle, scores of legislative races and 16 initiatives, to help their cause.

"I think the more crowded the ballot, the more people's inclination is to vote no," said Bill Magavern, a lobbyist with the Sierra Club. But, he added, "it's a voluble, unpredictable situation."

The opponents, mainly consumer, public health and environmental advocates, in the last month raised $3.3 million -- nearly all of it from trial attorneys and labor unions -- for their own TV ads. But proposition backers believe that their better-financed campaign has closed the gap in the last two weeks.

John Sullivan, the Yes on 64 campaign's co-chairman, said a wave of mailings and final- weekend rallies featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had helped create the "the kind of awareness we need despite the traffic in issues and candidates."

Schwarzenegger's argument is that Proposition 64 would reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits by unscrupulous attorneys that, he maintains, make it expensive for companies in California to thrive and create jobs.

Businesses agree. A range of companies has donated money to the campaign. Major contributors have been auto dealers, who often complain that they are pestered by lawsuits making silly claims, such as that the fine print is too small in their newspaper ads or that the ads use too many abbreviations.

After trying unsuccessfully for eight years to amend the law in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, businesses have no choice but to try to change the law through an initiative, said Michael Brown, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in defending Unfair Competition Law cases.

"California is a haven to bring these lawsuits," he said.

Proposition opponents said they were prepared last summer to support a legislative effort to amend the law to make it less susceptible to abuse, particularly by lawyers looking for fast-buck settlements. And if Proposition 64 fails, they will try again in Sacramento, said Michael Schmitz, executive director of the California League for Environmental Enforcement Now in Oakland.

"Bad attorneys," he said, "hurt the many good public interest organizations that use these laws."

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