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Three Supreme Court Briefs Involving Access to Courts

Public Citizen Litigation Group recently filed briefs in three U.S. Supreme Court cases involving individuals access to the civil justice system. Consumers’ ability to hold companies accountable for wrongdoing is critical not only to the injured person, but to incentivizing companies to act responsibly and safely so that injuries do not occur in the first place.

American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant

American Express seeks to enforce an arbitration agreement that prohibits merchants that accept its charge cards from filing class actions or otherwise sharing the cost of legal proceedings against it. The merchants are attempting to hold American Express liable for a tying arrangement that violates the antitrust laws (American Express insists that they accept its unpopular credit cards if they want to accept its popular charge cards), but because expensive expert testimony is required to prove the claims, the cost of arbitrating an individual case would dwarf any possible recovery.

Public Citizen's amicus brief argues that arbitration agreements that actually prevent arbitration by making it impossible to assert statutory rights are not enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Dan’s City Used Cars v. Pelkey

This case presents the question whether state-law claims against a towing company for trading away a car that was involuntarily towed are barred by a provision of a federal statute that preempts state laws “related to” “services” of motor carriers “with respect to the transportation of property.”

Dan’s City towed Robert Pelkey’s car from the parking lot of his apartment complex. Mr. Pelkey spent two months in the hospital and learned his car was towed only upon his return. Although his lawyer informed Dan’s City that the car was not abandoned and that he wanted to arrange for its return, Dan’s City traded Mr. Pelkey’s car away without reimbursing him for his loss. Mr. Pelkey brought state-law consumer protection act and negligence claims against Dan’s City. The state trial court held that the claims were preempted by the federal statute, but the New Hampshire Supreme Court reversed.

Public Citizen, as co-counsel for Mr. Pelkey before the U.S. Supreme Court, today filed the brief on his behalf. The brief explains that Mr. Pelkey’s claims relate to how his car was traded away and ownership transferred, not to the towing itself or to any other service with respect to the transportation of property. The brief also explains that Mr. Pelkey’s claims are far afield from the concerns of Congress in enacting the federal law and have no connection to federal regulation of motor carriers, further showing that the statute’s preemption provision does not extend to the claims in the case.

Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett

Karen Bartlett was severely injured by the prescription pain reliever Sulindac, which she took in generic form. She brought a state-law design-defect claim against the manufacturer of the drug, and a jury ruled in her favor. The company is asserting, however, that her suit is barred by federal regulation of generic prescription drugs and, even further, that federal regulation also preempts design-defect claims concerning brand-name prescription drugs.

Filed on behalf of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA), our amicus brief argues that the text and purpose of the federal law regulating prescription drugs, as well as more than 75 years of history in which damages suits and federal drug regulation have co-existed, show that design-defect claims are not preempted. Moreover, whether federal law should bar state-law claims is a policy decision that should not be made by the Court but instead is properly left to Congress.

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