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Lawsuit abuse, indeed.

A product malfunctions causing severe injury to your eight year old son. A corporation lays off your neighbor without reason after thirty years of service and age discrimination is suspected. The scenarios in which you or someone you know and care about may need to go to court are limitless, as are the potential consequences if H.R. 966 gets passed.

The House Judiciary Committee just approved the “Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act,” H.R. 966 AKA “LARA.”

Unfortunately, for anyone who cares about justice or about wise uses of their taxpayer dollars, H.R. 966 is yet another example of bills to add to the long list of “Clear Skies” and other let’s-call-this-bill-the-exact-opposite-of-what-it-actually-is-bills.

If the title wasn’t bad enough, the bill by Rep. Lamar Smith and Senator Charles Grassley, who sponsored the Senate version, S. 533, is deceptively cloaked in technical terms. What better way for Congressional lawmakers to slip this past ordinary citizens (the ones who will be at an even greater disadvantage if LARA moves forward as feared).

Here is the scoop: HR 966 revises a procedural rule – commonly called Rule 11. The old Rule 11, which was implemented in the 1980s, was typically used as a tactic by corporate defendants to prolong and create sidebar litigLARA "House Judiciary"ation, distracting attention away from the real claims in lawsuits and increasing the costs of already-expensive litigation.

A judicial advisory committee reviewed several empirical studies and judicial surveys and found not only that the rule encouraged additional unnecessary litigation, but also that the incidence of motions for sanctions and court orders was higher in civil rights cases than in some other types of cases. It was also discovered that sanctions were sought more frequently against claimants than against defendants. In other words, the old Rule 11 as written made it easy for corporate lawyers to create expensive procedural hoops, which the claimants (ordinary citizens like you and me) would have to jump through. While corporations with teams of lawyers may have the time and resources to stay in court indefinitely, others do not.

After these and other problems came to light, Rule 11 was revised in 1993 to give judges more discretion to address the issues as they see fit, and the new revisions alleviated the burdens on the courts. In a recent survey on the newer rule, more than 80 percent of federal trial judges said that “the rule is needed and it is just right as it now stands.”

Fast-forward now to 2011 and I find myself sitting in a hearing on LARA where I cannot help but wonder why the House Judiciary Committee is so dead-set on removing federal judges’ ability to exercise their judgment in deciding whether to impose punishment for unnecessary court filings and on eliminating lawyers’ ability to correct or withdraw filings with the court if they are not well grounded in fact or law.

The judiciary as well as consumer, employment and civil rights groups oppose HR 966 because it will take us back to a place where we should not care to return. But it looks like some members in Congress are determined to live in the past.

Christine Hines is Public Citizen’s Consumer and Civil Justice Counsel

Follow her on Twitter @Chines_citizen

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