First of all, verdicts against such corporate defendants are frequently appealed – and the appellate process can drag on for years. Secondly, when these corporate offenders finally are held accountable and forced to pay up, the fines and judgments usually don’t amount to more than an insignificant portion of their net worth – and they can be written off as part of the cost of doing business. Nonetheless, it is the best way for injured parties to get some modicum of justice.
However, if the Trump Administration and the GOP have their way, plaintiffs will find it far more difficult to obtain that justice. A major step in that direction was taken recently, and the story has been flying under the radar. That step is House Resolution 985, better known by the Orwellian name of “The Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017.”
This bill passed the House of Representatives in March, not surprisingly by a party line vote. It will put severe restrictions on class action lawsuits by requiring proof that “each proposed class member suffered the same type and scope of injury as the named class representative,” and that any certification of said class is based on “rigorous analysis of the evidence.”
In short, it will make it almost impossible for plaintiffs who have been injured by the same product to join forces against the corporation responsible for those injuries.
Democratic Representative Jaime Raskin of Maryland says that the bill, should it become law, won’t shut down class actions altogether – but it will definitely impose severe constraints. He says, “It’s not the guillotine, but it’s a strait jacket,” adding, “It sends another huge valentine and wet kiss to large corporate tortfeasors, but gives the finger to millions of American citizens who suffer injuries from these defendants.”
Naturally, the corporate-friendly Republican Party has a different take on it. To GOP Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas’ 27th District, H.R. 985 is about streamlining the process and putting limits on “excessively broad” class action lawsuits he claims hurt business and force consumers to join litigation they want no part of.
Speaking to The Hill, Farenthold said, “The purpose of a class action is to provide a fair means of evaluating similar meritorious claims, not to provide a way for lawyers to artificially inflate the size of a class to extort a larger settlement fee for themselves, siphoning money away from those actually injured and increasing prices for everyone.”
The good news is that H.R. 985 is not yet law – and it faces many obstacles. A similar bill, H.R. 1927, the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2015,” was passed by the House, but died in the Senate. Furthermore, a broad coalition of civil rights and consumer rights advocacy groups are gearing up to oppose the bill, along with the American Bar Association. Furthermore, the Committee on Rules of Practice & Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States has gone on record in opposition to this ill-considered legislation. According to PredictGov.com, H.R. 985 currently has only an 18% chance of passing both houses of Congress.
Considering the current state of the federal government and the chaos that is defining the Trump Administration, it is not time to panic – but we need to remain vigilant.