Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer on Thursday urged voters to defeat Proposition 64, calling the proposal to limit the state's Unfair Competition Law an attempt "to crack a cornerstone of California's environmental protection structure."
The ballot measure, backed by the state Chamber of Commerce, car dealers and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, "significantly limits the ability of private individuals and public interest groups to bring environmental and consumer protection lawsuits" against suspected corporate wrongdoers, Lockyer said at a media event with representatives of environmental groups in Santa Monica.
Supporters of Proposition 64 contend that they want to curb abuses of the unfair-competition statute, which empowers individuals to sue businesses for alleged wrongful practices or deceptive advertising, even if they haven't been directly harmed. They argue that unscrupulous lawyers churn out lawsuits in hopes of collecting easy settlements from small companies that can't afford lengthy court battles.
If Proposition 64 passes, people will be able to pursue a claim in court only if they actually were injured or suffered financial or property losses.
Such restrictions would make it extremely difficult for environmental activists to use the 70-year-old law to seek injunctions against polluters, Lockyer said.
"If you're exposed to cancer from some pollutant or chemical, you can't bring a lawsuit until you get cancer because you have to demonstrate that you've actually been harmed," he said.
What's more, the attorney general said, the requirement that potential plaintiffs satisfy stringent legal class-action requirements before seeking broad injunctions against polluters could prove "prohibitively expensive for most people."
Under the proposed initiative, only the attorney general and local prosecutors could sue on behalf of the general public. So-called private attorney general suits filed by individuals have been an important supplement to enforcement efforts of state prosecutors, Lockyer said. He stressed that the same right of private enforcement also is helpful in protecting citizens' privacy and consumer rights.
Proposition 64 spokesman David Houston, the owner of Barney's Beanery restaurant in West Hollywood, said he was disappointed that the attorney general "has chosen to side with the interests of trial lawyers instead of protecting the thousands of hardworking small-business owners who are being made victims of shakedown lawsuits."