Republican representatives pass bill to make it harder to sue companies that damage their health

Human rights lawyer Mary Katharine Burke tells The Independent she fears that it will protect large corporations from accountability

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A bill that puts more restrictions on class action lawsuits has been passed in the US House of Representatives. 

In future litigators will be required to provide proof that each person in an action suffers from the same severity of injuries in order for a federal court to approve the suit as a result of the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act. 

Class action suits have been brought by a variety of groups, who have sued for better consumer protection from pharmaceutical companies, faulty product design by retail manufacturers, sexual harassment cases, and asbestos and lead poisoning. 

Many times these types of suits "pool" those injured because they would not be able to afford to file individual cases against large corporations. It is an expensive and lengthy process in many instances. 

The move was criticised by human rights advocates including Mary Katharine Burke, a Washington DC based attorney with experience in civil class action suit against a private prison that violated the rights of foreign detainees. 

She told The Independent that the bill would only serve to protect large corporations from accountability. 

Trying to prove that all potential members of a suit have the same level of injuries would be “incredibly complicated” and involve multiple, expensive investigations and subjective determinations, she said. 

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“It was plainly written by someone who doesn’t practise law or understand how the legal process works,” she added. 

This type of litigation can “be a powerful tool to hold corporations accountable,” but ultimately serves to protect all citizens, she said.  

She is most worried that the power of class action lawsuits are being stymied by the bill.

Ms Burke noted that these types of suits “can really change the way we engage with products and societal mindsets - now we accept that smoking can kill you and causes cancer” because of a class action suit against tobacco companies.

Eighteen veterans groups also opposed the bill in a letter to Congress because many older veterans have been disproportionately injured by asbestos, a substance often found in older buildings that if inhaled for long periods of time can cause lung cancer and other illnesses. 

If the bill passes the Senate, it could limit the liability of manufacturers who continued to use asbestos well after they learned of the health hazards and would limit future accountability as well for those who could still develop symptoms, they said. 

Class action asbestos litigation is expensive and lengthy in the US due to the severity of illnesses suffered, widespread occurrence of the substance, and because often symptoms takes years to show up. 

But Blake Farenthold, a Republican Congressman from Texas, told The Hill newspaper the purpose of the bill was not to eliminate the ability to bring class action suits, but to stop “lawyers to artificially inflate the size of a class to extort a larger settlement for themselves.” 

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