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Class-action rule changes will hurt consumers
The Register Guard
Tortured tort reform: Class-action rule changes will hurt consumers
February 13, 2005

President Bush delivered the goods for his Republican supporters in big business on Thursday with the first big win in his sweeping second-term domestic agenda.

With 18 Democrats joining the Republican majority, the Senate voted 72-26 in favor of a measure tailored to "reform" the problems American corporations had with costly class-action lawsuits.

Unfortunately, consumers harmed by corporate malfeasance may find themselves reformed right out of the courtroom. The one-sided bill was opposed by many state attorneys general and consumer groups, who said it contained a deliberate Catch-22 designed to thwart legitimate class-action lawsuits.

Class-action suits allow plaintiffs with similar claims against the same defendant to combine their cases into one lawsuit. Thursday's bill, called the Class-Action Fairness Act, shifts future class actions with plaintiffs from more than one state and claims exceeding $5 million out of state courts and into the federal system.

This move, long sought by American business interests, is likely to greatly restrict the filing of new class actions because federal courts have rules prohibiting them from hearing cases that would involve applying different laws from several states to the same case. In addition, the federal court system is so overburdened, many plaintiffs won't be willing to wait the number of years it may take for their case to be heard. The Catch-22 built into the new law could prohibit state courts from hearing a case with out-of-state plaintiffs while federal courts refuse the same case because it involves the application of different state laws.

Some legal experts have suggested that federal judges will be reluctant to dismiss important cases on weak procedural grounds and that the worst fears of the new law's opponents are unfounded. That would be some solace.

More likely, however, is the practical reality that the crushing workload already in front of the nation's federal courts, and the priority those courts must give criminal cases, will ensure that complex class-action suits will take many years longer than they do now to reach trial.

Such delays are certain to deny justice to some worthy plaintiffs. Where's the reform in that outcome?