Jan. 7, 2016

Bill That Would Cripple Class-Action Lawsuits and Further Harm Asbestos Victims Should Be Defeated

U.S. Chamber of Commerce Receives Belated Holiday Gift

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A bill poised to pass the U.S. House of Representatives would make it more difficult for class actions to move forward and harder for asbestos victims to be compensated. It should be defeated, Public Citizen said today.

The bill to be voted on this week, the Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (H.R. 1927), contains provisions designed to protect the profits of big business by shielding them from accountability for illegal activity and sacrificing the legal rights of victims of corporate wrongdoing.

Section 2 of H.R. 1927 would bar cases from proceeding as class actions by providing that only individuals who have suffered the “same type and scope of injury” could join together in a class action – a drastic departure from current rules stating which cases may be litigated as class actions.

This provision would eliminate most class actions, because it is virtually impossible to ensure that all the members of a large class have been injured in exactly the same way and to exactly the same extent. Yet class actions often are the only way for consumers and employees to hold corporations accountable for harm because bringing individual cases is not economically feasible when a large number of consumers have been ripped off by a corporation for relatively small dollar amounts. If passed, the bill would let corporations off the hook for systemic, widespread discrimination, unfair and deceptive practices, and consumer fraud.

“H.R. 1927 threatens Americans’ access to justice by severely hindering the ability of consumers and workers to bring class-action lawsuits,” said Sonia Gill, counsel for civil justice and consumer protection for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Certifying class actions is already a challenging process, and this bill makes it worse. It appears to be part of an ongoing campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies to eliminate class actions altogether.”

Section 3 of H.R. 1927 is also egregious. This section was formerly H.R. 526, the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act. This provision would put unworkable burdens on claims trusts – accounts set up to handle asbestos claims – slowing or virtually stopping their ability to compensate victims. Since patients diagnosed with fatal asbestos-caused diseases such as mesothelioma have very short expected lifespans, a delay in justice could lead to a denial of justice. The FACT Act also would invade the privacy of asbestos disease victims.

“Congress should act to protect these victims instead of opening the door for the asbestos industry to further escape accountability for poisoning the public,” said Susan Harley, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “This bill adds insult to injury by requiring public disclosure of personal information, opening the door to identity theft and possible discrimination.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has advocated in favor of both provisions. The Chamber’s president, Tom Donohue, said last year in his annual “State of American Business” speech that passage of the FACT Act is a Chamber priority.

Public Citizen this week sent a letter (PDF) to House lawmakers opposing the legislation and joined with a coalition of organizations on other letters (PDF) opposing the bill. Additionally, privacy groups (PDF) and labor and occupational health groups (PDF) oppose the FACT Act.

Although H.R. 1927 is likely to pass the House on a partisan vote, a Senate companion bill to the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation” legislation has not been introduced. The FACT Act Senate bill (S. 357) has not yet been considered by a committee.

In addition, on Wednesday, the Obama administration stated it strongly opposes H.R. 1927 because it would impair the enforcement of important federal laws, constrain access to the courts and needlessly threaten the privacy of asbestos victims.

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