While most media attention was focused elsewhere, Republicans in the House of Representatives pushed through a bill authored by Congressman Goodlatte that makes it harder for ordinary consumers to join class-action lawsuits.
David Lazarus, consumer affairs reporter for The Los Angeles Times, spoke with Goodlatte (something relatively few of the congressman’s Sixth District constituents have been able to do):
“Frivolous lawsuits have no place in our legal system, and the true victims of frivolous lawsuits are often small businesses and individuals who cannot afford to fight these claims,” he said.
Apparently this is an extremely urgent issue because Goodlatte introduced his bill only a month ago. It was approved by his committee’s Republican majority less than a week later without any public hearings or debate.
“The legislation … addresses the abuses within our civil justice system, helps ensure that baseless lawsuits are quickly dispensed with and improves protections for deserving victims so the doors to justice remain open for parties with legitimate claims,” Goodlatte said.
What it really does is impose strict new rules on class actions that make them a lot harder to get off the ground. Not surprisingly, the bill is strongly supported by the business-boosting U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent millions lobbying on its behalf.
The legislation’s key provision would allow a class to be certified — that is, to receive court approval for plaintiffs to band together — only if all members “suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative.”
That’s a spectacularly unfair stipulation for a bill claiming to be all about fairness.
Take air bags. Let’s say the originator of a class-action lawsuit was severely injured by an exploding air bag. If Goodlatte’s bill were law, the only people who could join the suit would be people who received similarly extensive harm.
Someone who sustained lesser or different injuries probably wouldn’t qualify for the case.
The shame of it is that Goodlatte’s bill also contains some thoughtful provisions, such as limiting lawyers’ payouts to “a reasonable percentage” of whatever plaintiffs are awarded. Often, attorneys walk off with a big chunk of the cash and leave individual class members with relatively little.
But these worthwhile ideas are far outweighed by the ridiculous “same scope of injury” provision.
Our legal system is far from perfect and, yes, there are abuses of class actions and damages claims. But significantly tilting the playing field in favor of businesses doesn’t improve things.
Consider recent fraud and defective-product scandals involving Wells Fargo, Volkswagen and air bag maker Takata. Consumers and employees responded with class-action lawsuits.
Anyone think those cases are frivolous?