By Emily Myers
On April 22, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va) introduced H.R. 1927, a bill that would severely limit the ability of citizens who have been harmed or ripped off to band together in a class-action lawsuit. The bill stipulates that in order to be certified as a class, each individual member must prove they have suffered an injury identical in type and extent to the proposed class representative(s). This would create unnecessary red tape for people who have suffered harm at the hands of corporations and institutions and effectively ban them from forming class actions. Historically, class actions have been an efficient and economical way for consumers and citizens to reconcile their disputes with employers and companies. Below are five of the most important class-action lawsuits that would have been threatened by Rep. Goodlatte’s bill.
Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Company
Immortalized in the film Erin Brockovich, Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. allowed the residents of Hinkley, California, to be compensated for the medical costs of PG&E’s negligence. PG&E had been knowingly dumping hexavalent chromium, a recognized poison since 1925, into the town’s groundwater. In 1996, the lawsuit was settled for $333 million, the largest civil action settlement at the time. This case would have been virtually impossible to win had the residents of Hinkley been prohibited from banding together. Unless we want to encourage corporations to freely pump carcinogens through our water, we need to protect the right to class-action lawsuits and oppose Rep. Goodlatte’s bill.
Brown v. Board of Education
A class-action lawsuit was behind one of the most important civil rights cases of all times, ensuring that the quality of one’s education would no longer be decided by the color of one’s skin. After the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, decided to maintain its racially segregated elementary school system, African-American children of elementary school age brought a class action lawsuit challenging the system in a federal court in Kansas. The case ultimately was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court together with similar class actions filed on behalf of children in South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware. Those fighting for social justice argued that “separate but equal” was a myth because as long as black and white schools remained segregated they would never be equal. On May 17, 1954, The court agreed, and a major milestone in the civil rights movement was reached. If we want to keep moving our society forward to achieve better civil rights protections, we cannot restrict class-action lawsuits.
Anderson et al., v. Cryovac Inc. et al.
You may know this case from the John Travolta movie, A Civil Action, but outside the world of cinema, it had major impact on the lives of Woburn, Massachusetts, residents. The named plaintiff, Anne Anderson, and six other Woburn families sued Beatrice Foods, the John L. Riley Tannery, and W.R. Grace & Company, a New York company that owned and operated the Cryovac Division manufacturing plant, for polluting the town’s drinking water with trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene and other toxic chemicals. Woburn families had suffered immensely at the hands of these companies’ actions. In addition to health problems like skin rashes, vision difficulties, miscarriages and headaches, 12 Woburn children, eight of them living within a half-mile radius, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The plaintiff class ultimately was rewarded a settlement of approximately $8 million. The expense of proving companies are responsible for causing an illness is very high since experts are required to help draw the connection to who caused the harm. It’s only efficient to bring such cases as class actions, where multiple persons have suffered some harm caused by the same entity or entities. The fact is, a class action was the best hope for Woburn families, as it is for many people.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Litigation
In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound off the coast of Alaska. Until the BP Oil spill in 2010, the Exxon Valdez spill was considered to be the worst environmental disaster in the United States. In addition to the appalling environmental degradation, the livelihoods of local people plummeted as a result of the spill. A class action was filed on behalf of 32,000 fishermen, Alaska natives, landowners, and others. U.S. District Court Judge H. Russell Holland stated that, “Exxon officials knew that carrying huge volumes of crude oil through Prince William Sound was a dangerous business, yet they knowingly permitted a relapsed alcoholic to direct the operation of the Exxon Valdez through Prince William Sound.” After years of appeals and renegotiations, the plaintiff class was awarded $1.515 billion. The negligence of Exxon Mobil leading up to the spill was staggering, and the harm the corporation did needed to be reconciled. Rep. Goodlatte’s bill would prevent people affected by corporate wrongdoing from banding together and seeking justice, as those harmed by the Exxon Valdez spill did.
Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company
Lois E. Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co., depicted in the film North Country, was the first sexual harassment class-action lawsuit. Filed on behalf of Lois E. Jenson and 14 other female workers in the EVTAC mine in Eveleth, Minnesota, in 1988, the conclusion of the case changed worker protection laws on both the state and federal levels and set a precedent for other class actions aiming to end workplace harassment and discrimination. The women involved in the class-action lawsuit were subjected to extreme harassment in the form of stalking, abusive language, threats and intimidation. Since 1984, Lois E. Jenson had repeatedly tried to bring attention to the problem but was met with additional hostile behavior and eventual dismissal. A class-action suit allowed her and 14 other women to be compensated for the traumatizing harassment they endured. In 1994, the case ended with an out-of-court settlement after years of delay by the judges and jury. The 15 women received a monetary settlement from the EVTAC mine of $3.5 million. It’s extremely important that we keep Rep. Goodlatte from turning back the clock on women’s ability to challenge harmful behavior in the workplace like sexual harassment.
Emily Myers is an intern with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division