Maybe you heard it last Friday. That giant lawnmower sound, like the enormous blades approaching in Stephen King’s The Langolier. It was Bush, cutting down class action suits. Large class actions, the kind in which citizens can come back at big corporations for negligence and abuse, which has changed their lives or ruined their health, will now go to federal courts instead of more consumer-friendly state courts. Consumer groups contend that federal courts will be less sympathetic, and even less likely to hear, class action cases against well-financed corporations from oil, tobacco, automakers or my personal favorite, large pharmaceutical companies. Naturally, your man of the people thinks it’s fantastic. Bush: “We have agreed on a practical way to begin restoring common sense and balance to America’s legal system.” At a certain point, litigation against corporations ironically acquired a negative connotation in America. The easy explanation might be to trace all this back to the notorious McDonald’s hot coffee suit of 1994, which, thanks to late night comics and pundit yak-fests, lingers in the public’s mind as the point at which something had to turn. Except that McDonald’s knew there was trouble brewing. The company settled 700 incidents of scalding coffee burns in the last decade, and in the notorious case the woman involved pursued McDonald’s after they dismissed her request for compensation for medical bills from the resulting burns that required a seven-day hospital stay and skin grafts. On appeal, the award to the plaintiff was lowered. But rather than re-spill that case… let’s look closer to home for evidence that consumers need the courts to help them. Alan R. Sporn is a Laguna Hills businessman who had his Social Security number stolen. He learned this when tracing problems with his credit to the giant retailer Home Depot. Home Depot had submitted inquiries regarding Sporn’s credit at least a dozen times in a year. But it wasn’t Sporn they were checking on, it was the party that had ripped-off his Social Security number. Home Depot would not reveal to Sporn who the culprit was, nor did it respond to certified mail from Sporn asking it to stop checking—thus denigrating his credit, and when he finally sued, it ignored the suit. Sporn won, but Home Depot never showed up for the hearings. Sporn and his attorney finally had to notify the L.A. Sheriff’s department, which began pursuing for Sporn’s judgment. Home Depot, with Bush-like empathy for consumers, appealed. But the District Court of Appeals scolded Home Depot and Sporn will now eventually get close to $1.15 million for the neglect. One consumer advocate says last week’s legislation shows that Bush “has once again demonstrated that the deep pockets of powerful corporate interests are more important to this administration than protecting the rights of ordinary Americans.” Put another way, did you hear that Vioxx is back on the market?Bush has been aggressive in attacking what he calls “junk and frivolous lawsuits,” such as asbestos and medical claims. You know, events in which large corporations make mistakes that kill people. Dumb stuff that slows down the economy the way worker safety, product safety, consumer safety, medical safety and now identity protection slow down profits. Bush has his template: If brave Americans can fight in Iraq without enough armor, then certainly those at home can eat the asbestos of corporate abuse without recourse through the courts.
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