October 27, 2005

House approves crackdown on “junk” lawsuits

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives on
Thursday approved a crackdown on frivolous lawsuits that
includes mandatory penalties for those who file them.

"This will make a lawyer think twice before filing a
frivolous suit," said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and
sponsor of the legislation.

"Today, almost any party can bring any suit in any
jurisdiction," Smith said in arguing for the bill. "All they
want is for the defendant to settle. This is legalized

The bill passed the House 228-184, with just sixteen
Democrats supporting it.

But the mostly Republican effort, with penalties that can
include court costs and lawyers' fees, is considered unlikely
to progress in the Senate.

A similar bill passed the House last year and was ignored
in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to erect
procedural hurdles. Senate aides said no action was scheduled
on this year's version of the bill.

The Bush administration backed the bill, saying in a
statement that "junk lawsuits" were hurting the economy.

It was also backed by business groups but opposed by trial
lawyers, a classic constituency of the Democrats.

Critics noted judges already had the option to impose
sanctions on meritless suits. They warned the bill would have a
chilling effect on civil rights cases, since these often
challenge societal norms.

"Brown v. Board of Education might have been (considered)
frivolous," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas,
referring to the 1954 case in which the Supreme Court declared
school segregation unconstitutional. "I don't want a law that
says you can't go into the courthouse."

Long odds of Senate passage did not deter House Republicans
from reading a litany of "junk" lawsuits.

A Pennsylvania man, Smith said, had sued Frito-Lay, a
division of PepsiCo Inc., claiming Doritos chips were
inherently dangerous after one was got stuck in his throat.

"After eight years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw
out the case," Smith said, with judges concluding that "it is
necessary to properly chew food before swallowing."