March 9, 2017, Trial News

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Briefing highlights impact of anti-civil-justice bills on injured people’s rights

Kate Halloran

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Injured people are at risk of losing their right to hold wrongdoers accountable if several bills currently before the U.S. House of Representatives pass. A March 3 briefing for congressional staff highlighted the negative consequences of enacting the legislation for plaintiffs across the civil justice system. Legal experts and former plaintiffs whose cases have already proceeded through the civil justice system spoke to congressional staff about the real-life impact of these bills—denying millions of injured Americans access to the courts.
 

Injured people are at risk of losing their right to hold wrongdoers accountable if several bills currently before the U.S. House of Representatives pass. A March 3 briefing for congressional staff highlighted the negative consequences of enacting the legislation for plaintiffs across the civil justice system. Legal experts and former plaintiffs whose cases have already proceeded through the civil justice system spoke to congressional staff about the real-life impact of these bills—denying millions of injured Americans access to the courts.

Six anti-civil-justice bills are expected to be presented on the House floor for a vote over the next two weeks:

  • the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act (H.R. 720, expected to go before the House on March 9), making Rule 11 sanctions mandatory;
  • the Innocent Party Protection Act (H.R. 725, expected to go before the House on March 8), making it easier for corporate defendants to remove state-based claims to federal court;
  • the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act (H.R. 985, expected to go before the House on March 9), limiting plaintiffs in consumer, employment, and civil rights cases from banding together in a class action;
  • the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act (H.R. 906, now part of H.R. 985), making it more difficult for victims of asbestos diseases to receive compensation;
  • the Stop Settlements Slush Fund Act (H.R. 732), prohibiting the federal government from entering into or enforcing settlements that include “donations” to third parties such as nonprofits; and
  • the Protecting Access to Care Act (H.R. 1215), reducing injured people’s ability to bring claims for medical malpractice, dangerous drugs and devices, and more, and instituting a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages.

The bills were pushed through the House Judiciary Committee without hearings, and civil justice advocates—including AAJ, the Center for Justice and Democracy, and Public Citizen, which all sponsored the briefing—are urging lawmakers to oppose the legislation, citing the effect on a range of cases, from medical negligence to products liability.

Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, said that H.R. 985 is an attempt to “obliterate class actions”—affecting civil rights, small business, and consumer actions—and is “nothing more than a wish list of what defendants would like to see.” She also said that H.R. 1215, the broad wording of which encompasses more than just medical negligence cases, “is a massive overwrite of state tort law.” It includes a cap on noneconomic damages even in states that have chosen not to enact one and would extend damages caps to cases beyond medical negligence. “Every single provision would strip away the rights of patients who have already been harmed,” Doroshow said. Andrew Popper, a torts professor at American University Washington College of Law, explained that although the civil justice system is not perfect, it is “remarkably fair and constitutionally sound” and provides a level playing field for people who have been harmed and would not otherwise be able to find recourse against corporate defendants.

The panel also included five women who shared their experiences with the civil justice system and explained how these bills would strip future plaintiffs of their rights. Evilyn Ramirez, the mother of a young girl who was severely and permanently injured during a flash fire in an operating room caused by the surgical team’s negligence, said that her family was “able to seek justice through the courts” and give her daughter a chance at a normal life. She said that H.R. 1215, instead of protecting patients, “would make it extremely difficult to hold those accountable for making critical, preventable errors when providing medical care.”

Angela Jones, whose Samsung washing machine exploded and sent shrapnel into the walls of her home, said that a recall for the allegedly defective machines happened only after a class action had been filed against the company and public attention was focused on the machines’ danger to consumers. Congressional staff also heard from Sue Vento, whose husband, a former congressman, died from mesothelioma; Adriana Plevniak, a young mother who suffered partial vision loss because of her doctor’s negligence during a procedure to treat an eye condition; and Anna “Jill” Noren, the widow of a U.S. Army veteran whose cancer went undiagnosed by Veterans Affairs’s doctors until it was too late to treat.

The women explained how the proposed legislation would have curtailed their path to some measure of justice. Ramirez noted that because her daughter was injured as a baby, she and her husband did not know the extent of care their daughter would need for the rest of her life and that a damages cap would have curtailed their ability to fully provide for her needs. Vento described how her husband initially focused on battling his mesothelioma but then became determined to also fight on the legal front to hold corporations responsible for their negligence. “This is about making a statement about justice,” she said, “and doing right by people.”

Plaintiff attorneys and their clients can send a strong message to Congress and tell their representatives to vote “no” on each bill. AAJ has created a website to help attorneys and their clients fight back against “Lawsuit Abuse” week: www.takejusticeback.com/ProtectMyRightToFight. The site has an online tool to automatically write or call members of Congress, and it provides talking points to explain why they should strongly oppose these bills.

Act now!