House Approves Tort-Reform Act; Bush Expects to Sign Measure Today

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles Hurt, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The House overwhelmingly passed the Class Action Fairness Act yesterday, setting the stage for President Bush to sign into law as early as today the most sweeping federal tort reform measure in more than a decade.

"After 10 years of tireless work on multiple fronts, our efforts are finally paying off, and the Republican Congress has passed the first substantive lawsuit abuse reform bill," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. "This bill is a major accomplishment and it will make history."

The bill, which passed the Senate last week and is the first major policy push by Republicans in this Congress, aims to halt some of the largest frivolous lawsuits in which lawyers bag huge fees and plaintiffs score pittances. It passed the House yesterday on a 279-149 vote.

Specifically, the bill diverts large, multistate class-action lawsuits from state courts into federal courts to stop lawyers from shopping their cases around the country in search of generous state judges and juries known for awarding huge verdicts. One such jurisdiction - Madison County, Ill. - reported a glut of suits filed in recent months as the legislation appeared likely to pass into law.

The law also will enhance judicial scrutiny of settlements where coupons are awarded to plaintiffs to ensure that legal fees are not too generous by comparison.

Yesterday's vote was a major victory for Mr. Bush, for whom tort reform has been a linchpin policy goal. He campaigned vigorously on the issue and this bill in particular. He is expected to sign it as early as today.

"[The bill] will help protect people who are wrongfully harmed while reducing the frivolous lawsuits that clog courts, hurt the economy, cost jobs and burden American businesses," he said yesterday.

"Junk lawsuits have driven the cost of America's tort system to more than 240 billion dollars a year - greater than any other major industrialized nation," Mr. Bush said. "This bill is an important step forward in our efforts to reform the litigation system and to continue creating jobs and growing our economy."

Opponents of the bill - all Democrats - say the legislation will undermine plaintiffs' ability to seek redress from large corporations that have deep pockets and armies of lawyers. They accuse Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress of working at the behest of corporate interests - particularly the insurance industry - which have donated generously to Republican efforts.

"In the 1960s, President Kennedy used to say, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,'" Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said on the House floor. …