After hours of debate—and with no hearings held on the matter before it quickly cleared the House Judiciary Committee on February 15—the Republican-controlled United States House of Representatives Thursday passed Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s H.R. 985, the misleadingly titled Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017. Coupled with the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act, H.R. 985 was passed with a 220-201 vote split almost entirely down party lines, and will move in the coming weeks to the Senate for a potential final vote.
Predictably, not one Democrat backed the measure, with the party’s most strenuous opposition coming from Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), who said H.R. 985 “sends another huge Valentine and wet kiss to large corporate polluters and tortfestors, but gives the finger to millions of American citizens who suffer injuries from these defendants.”
Raskin, a constitutional law and legislation professor at American University in Washington D.C., added that the bill would give asbestos defendants, specifically, “new weapons” with which they can shield themselves from accountability.
“This legislation would shield corporate wrongdoers by making it far more difficult for them to get together to obtain justice in a class action lawsuit,” Raskin said.
In step, New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler contended the intent behind H.R. 985 is to limit “access to court help for ordinary Americans.”
Similarly, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi slammed the proposed bill’s “unconscionable provisions” that would, among other injustices, eviscerate an indispensable tool for citizens to hold corporations accountable for malfeasance. Pelosi added that H.R. 985 would violate the privacy of victims, including veterans, with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses since it would mandate the public disclosure of claimants’ addresses and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers.
Pelosi’s most scathing remark took aim at Republicans’ apparent disregard for consumers’ and workers’ rights.
“From fighting to strip health care away from Americans to scheming to create new barriers for Americans seeking remedies in our civil justice system, this Republican Congress keeps working to stack the deck for the rich against hard-working Americans,” Pelosi said via press release. “The American people deserve a government that works for them and stands with them as they fight for fair remedies in the face of corporations’ immense money and resources.”
Echoing the sentiments of House Democrats and organizations such as the American Bar Association, the American Association for Justice, legal scholars, and many other civil rights groups, Republicans in the House Liberty Caucus posted a letter condemning H.R. 985. Among the points touched on in the House Liberty Caucus’ letter is the measure’s inherent flaw that would not only allow “bad actors” to avoid liability for corporate wrongdoing, but its ideology that seemingly stands against many Republicans’ pro-small-government leanings.
“Class action lawsuits are a market-based solution for addressing widespread breaches of contract, violations of property rights, and infringements of other legal rights. They are a preferable alternative to government regulation because they impose damages only on bad actors rather than imposing compliance costs on entire industries,” House Liberty Caucus Executive Director Matt Weibel wrote, adding that H.R. 985 is entirely one-sided in its scope.
“The bill violates the freedom of contract and makes redress unnecessarily difficult for injured victims. It limits the amount of money that plaintiffs’ lawyers can earn from their work on class action lawsuits and restricts when they can receive compensation, while putting no such requirements on the defendants,” Weibel said.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, the vote on the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 came during National Consumer Protection Week, the Federal Trade Commission’s nationally coordinated campaign to inform Americans of their consumer rights.
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A reckless new bill represents an unprecedented threat to consumer rights, essentially gutting class action and mass tort litigation. Congress has tried to ram it through without us noticing. Read more about the implications of this bill, and contact your members of Congress to protect your rights.