Congress today handed President Bush a major second-term victory, passing legislation he had advocated during his reelection campaign to restrict class-action lawsuits.
The bill, the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, passed the House today by a vote of 279-149, after having sailed through the Senate last week in a 72-26 vote. Bush is expected to sign it into law Friday.
The measure would shift most large class-action lawsuits involving parties from different states to federal courts, removing them from the jurisdiction of state courts that historically have been more receptive to such suits. The legislation had been strongly pushed by business groups, which argued that class-action lawsuits were enriching trial lawyers, who often filed them in certain jurisdictions known for sympathetic judges and juries.
Critics charged that the legislation would deprive Americans of legal recourse when they were wronged by powerful corporations.
Bush campaigned heavily last year against what he called "junk lawsuits," vowing to promote legislation that would overhaul America's legal liability system and curb medical malpractice, class-action and asbestos lawsuits.
"Today marks the culmination of nearly a decade of legislative efforts to end systematic abuse of our class-action system," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. He said filings of class-action suits had surged 1,300 percent in 10 years nationwide, and 5,000 percent in certain "magnet" jurisdictions.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said in support of the bill, "Frivolous lawsuits are clogging America's judicial system, endangering America's small businesses, jeopardizing jobs and driving up prices for consumers."
But Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, and other Democrats charged that the legislation is a payoff to big business, at the expense of consumers, for supporting Bush's reelection.
"When Americans are injured or even killed by Vioxx or Celebrex or discriminated against by Wal-Mart, they may never get their day in court," Pelosi said.
"This bill is the Vioxx protection bill, it is the Wal-Mart protection bill, it is the Tyco protection bill, and it is the Enron protection bill," said Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), the Associated Press reported.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called the bill "the final payback to the tobacco industry, to the asbestos industry, to the oil industry, to the chemical industry at the expense of ordinary families who need to be able go to court to protect their loved ones when their health has been compromised."
A major proponent of the legislation, the American Tort Reform Association, hailed the congressional action but called on lawmakers to take up other aspects of Bush's proposed overhaul.
"While this is a great accomplishment, it's time to move other legislation introduced in Congress that addresses medical liability, frivolous lawsuits and asbestos litigation," association president Sherman Joyce said in a statement. "We must build on the bipartisan support for reform in order to fight lawsuit abuse in a comprehensive way."
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a leading opponent of the bill, denounced it as "a shameful attack on Americans' legal rights."
"While advocates of this unfair legislation attacked trial lawyers, their real target was and is the American people and their citizen juries," Todd A. Smith, the association's president, said after the bill was passed by the Senate. He vowed that his association "will continue to aggressively fight for the legal rights of American families."
Under the new law, class-action suits seeking more than $5 million would move to federal court if fewer than a third of the plaintiffs were from the same state as the primary defendant. If the primary defendant and more than a third of the plaintiffs were from the same state, the case could still be heard in state court.
The legislation is not retroactive, meaning that it will affect only cases that are filed after Bush signs it into law. Existing cases against the manufacturer of Vioxx, a pain reliever found to cause heart attacks in some patients, can continue to be heard in state courts, for example.