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U.S. House Members Try to Sneak Through Passage of Anti-Consumer So-Called “Tort Reform” Bills

Posted March 10, 2017

By Jonathan A. Karon

Without any hearings, U.S. House Republicans have been pushing through four bills that would make it harder for ordinary Americans to hold large corporations and insurance companies accountable and obtain reasonable compensation for devastating injuries. This week, with minimal publicity, the House Judiciary Committee approved three of the bills, H.R. 725, H.R. 720 and H.R. 985. It is expected that the fourth bill, H.R. 1215 will be voted on imminently. According to Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School, “These bills, put together, would exonerate large corporations and the health-care industry for any kind of harm they may cause everyday people.”

Contrary to frequently invoked notions of “states rights” H.R. 725 (titled “the Innocent Party Protection Act”) would make it more difficult for injured persons to file cases in their home state’s court and force them into Federal Court instead. H.R. 720 (titled “the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act”) would invite corporate defendants to seek sanctions against plaintiff’s counsel for pursuing novel claims. This would discourage pursuing many claims for civil rights violations, employment discrimination and environmental abuses.

Even more troubling, H.R. 985 (“the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act and the Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act”) would eliminate most class action suits, which are particularly useful in employment discrimination and consumer complaints by severely restricting the people who could be included in a proposed class. It would also make it much more difficult to handle so-called “mass torts”, which frequently involve large numbers of people harmed by the same product by limiting the use of what are known as multi-district proceedings.

In a provision that disproportionately affects veterans because they disproportionately suffer from asbestos related diseases, it would also require trusts which distribute legal settlements to victims of asbestos related disease to publicly disclose the names, medical information and award amounts of these victims. According to the Washington Post, 18 veterans groups wrote a letter to congressional leaders criticizing the bill. “Forcing our veterans to publicize their work histories, medical conditions, majority of their Social Security numbers and information about their children and families is an offensive invasion of privacy to the men and women who have honorably served.”

The worst bill, H.R. 1215 (misleadingly called “the Protecting Access to Care Act”) would eliminate state law protections against preventable medical errors in several ways. Most significantly it would cap awards for all non-economic damages at $250,000 regardless of the severity of injury. This would apply to all types of medical malpractice claims, not just errors in surgery or diagnosis but even to cases of nursing home abuse and sexual assault by doctors. The cap would apply no matter the severity of injury, even if, for example, the victim suffered blindness, lost a limb, was unable to walk, became incontinent or suffered extreme brain damage.

It would also impose several other restrictions on bringing these types of cases including limiting the attorneys fees charged for representing injured plaintiffs (but not defendants or their insurance companies) and providing for a very short and strict statute of limitations.

So far the first three bills were reported out of the House Judiciary Committee on a strict party line vote and it is anticipated that the fourth, H.R. 1215 will soon receive the same treatment. All four bills would then have to be voted on it the House and then go to the Senate, before, if they pass, being presented to the President for his signature. Despite the fact that the President brags about how many lawsuits he has brought and frequently threatens to sue, it is anticipated that if these bills pass, he will sign them. It is not too late, however, to have your voice heard. If you would like to preserve your right to have equal access to our civil justice system you should call or write your Senator or member of Congress.

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