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U.S. Chamber-Backed Mash-Up Legislation Would Undermine Justice for All

Almost every day, you hear about some scandal where a company has taken advantage of customers, workers, depositors, taxpayers, and so on. For example, fuming Volkswagen customers are all over the news right now because they bought vehicles with pollution controls that, according to allegations by the U.S. Department of Justice, were rigged to cheat emission tests. So it’s shocking that the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill, H.R. 1927, the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation and Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency (FACT) Act,” which would strip ripped-off consumers (and other harmed individuals) of their legal rights.

The first way that the bill would undermine justice is by limiting the ability of consumers to band together in a class action to hold corporations accountable for widespread illegal behavior. The bill would cut off class actions as we know them by limiting plaintiffs from bringing suits as a class action unless they have suffered exactly same sort of injury. Examples are plentiful of monumental legal cases where, without the class action device, Americans may not have received justice. For example, families suffering from cancer caused by companies dumping toxic chemicals, children who were educated in segregated schools, women who were forced to endure sexual discrimination, shareholders who were duped by reckless companies and numerous other landmark court decisions.

My fellow lawyers should be especially troubled by this bill since most of us learned our first year of law school that there’s a special body, the Judicial Conference, where panels of legal experts evaluate suggested changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The changes are usually implemented only after a formal process with consultation from stakeholders and then must be ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court. This bill makes an end-run around that process by amending the requirements for certifying a class action so that they will only be able to proceed in those exceedingly rare cases where everyone who was harmed by the same party (or parties) suffered the exact same “type and scope of injury” – stripping judges of much of the discretion they now currently enjoy to determine what is going to be the fairest, not to mention most efficient, way for the courts to handle a case.

If that heinous piece of legislation wasn’t bad enough, that bill was mashed-up with another piece of legislation that would pile further harm on victims of corporate asbestos poisoning. Asbestos is a deadly fiber that is trapped deep in the lungs when inhaled and after as little as one exposure can lead to a death sentence from mesothelioma or other illnesses. Hearing the stories of the affected is heartbreaking. And as many as 12,000- 15,000 people die from asbestos-caused illnesses every year. These terribly high death counts are likely to continue well into the future, as we see more and more cases in what NPR has termed the “Third Wave of Asbestos Disease.

So, is this bill aiming to fix the asbestos problem by say actually banning this deadly product that is so well known to cause devastating types of illnesses? What about requiring disclosure of everywhere asbestos is located (for example, in the Halls of Congress or in kids’ toys)?

Nope. This part of H.R. 1927 is designed to change the way asbestos claims trusts do their work. These trusts are special accounts created under bankruptcy law to ensure speedy and efficient compensation for the many thousands of victims of asbestos exposure.

This Corporate Congress apparently wants to allow asbestos defendant companies to be able to tie up the time of the people who process asbestos victims’ claims for compensation with needless amounts of paperwork while leaving grieving families struggling to pay to bury their loved ones. It’s a crying shame. Literally.

Adding insult to injury, this bill would make the personal information of these victims an open book by publishing how much money they receive in their claims, information about their disease, and even portions of their social security numbers! Just imagine what a goldmine these publicly-accessible databases would be for identity thieves, scam artists and other crooks who troll the Internet for their next targets. Sadly, the sponsor of the standalone legislation that became this portion of the bill is actually a member of the Cybersecurity Caucus. Yes, the irony is rich.

So, if this bill makes perfectly no sense to you, you’re probably wondering the U.S. House passed a piece legislation that’s so ridiculously harmful to the countless veterans, first responders, teachers, and other heroes of the American workforce who suffer from asbestos-related illnesses at alarming rates. Not to mention anyone who could possibly be injured by a defective product, discriminated against, cheated with a bogus fee – so basically potentially harmful to everyone.

The reason this bill passed can be boiled down to five words: U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (I counted “U.S.” as two words, though I hate to even write that out, given the frequency the lobbying behemoth is confused with being part of the U.S. government.) The Chamber has been advocating for both of the bill’s provisions, and the business group’s president, Tom Donohue, even mentioned the asbestos legislation by name in his annual speech laying out the group’s lobbying agenda.

Thankfully, the White House will make sure this terrible bill never becomes law since there was a veto threat issued. However, there are important principles at stake. Do we stand up for our legal rights or do we continue to let it be sold off piece by piece? There’s no question where I stand. Where will you stand? I hope you’ll stand up with us to safeguard victims’ rights by joining the fight to protect the American justice system.

Susan Harley  is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.