In 2017, when Republicans took control of the House, they launched an unprecedent attack on our judicial system – and, in particular, on the ability of everyday Americans to access our courts. Fueled by the campaign contributions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some of America’s biggest corporate lobbies, they introduced a number of bills aimed at turning our judiciary into a pay-to-play institution, where the rich and well-financed could protect their interests and the rest of us found padlocks on the courtroom doors.
One of their bills – the so-called “Class Action Fairness Act” – would have eliminated the vast majority of class action lawsuits. The measure passed the House by a smaller-than-expected majority, and ultimately never made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But that isn’t going to stop the Chamber and its allies from cashing in their Congressional IOUs again this time and making another big money push to try and rewrite the rules of justice in America.
Just as they did last time, lawmakers committed to protecting corporations against our worker and consumer protection laws (among others) will use a litany of lies to try and convince their Congressional colleagues, and their constituents, that barring access to the courts is somehow a good thing to do. But their mythmaking cannot mask the truth about the effectiveness of the court system for Americans battling corrupt corporations, discriminatory employers and dangerous products.
The first lie the corporate lobby and their allies in Congress will peddle is that class actions return pennies and pittances to the public.
The second lie they will tell us is that class actions always lead to extorted settlements, because the cases never actually go to trial, and never face real juries.
But in many cases, the truth, on both counts, is much different.
Take, for instance, Raul Siqueiros, et al. v. General Motors LLC, a class action filed by attorneys at DiCello Levitt (along with co-lead trial counsel from Beasley Allen and additional co-counsel from Andrus Anderson LLP, and Anthony Garcia of AG Law) on behalf of consumers in three states who purchased certain GM trucks and SUVs between 2011 and 2014. GM had manufactured and installed a defective engine in certain models while hiding known defects from the public.
Attorneys in the case filed suit in 2016 on behalf of a class of plaintiffs alleging that GM knew of an engine defect in its 5.3 liter vehicles, which includes some of its SUVs and light trucks as early as 2008, yet chose to hide the defect and continue manufacturing and selling hundreds of thousands of vehicles with the defective engine for more than six years thereafter. A federal court in San Francisco subsequently certified a California class, an Idaho class, and a North Carolina class, comprising the owners of approximately 38,000 vehicles.
The result of the class action? After a full trial, with the presentation of extensive testimony and documentary evidence by both sides, a California jury returned a landmark verdict of $102.6 million, giving each class member $2700 in cash and delivering a blistering warning to GM and others about responsibility and accountability for covering up dangerous and defective products.
And, just as eye-opening was what attorneys for the impacted vehicle owners found out about how juries, and the public, see class actions. Through a series of focus groups, attorney Christopher Stombaugh said, they learned “how much support there was for the idea of class actions as being an ultimate leveling tool with large and powerful companies and individuals.”
Indeed, attorney Adam Levitt noted, it’s not public disapproval or jury doubts that keep class action out of court.
“One of the reasons that class action cases don’t get tried is because the defense bar doesn’t want to try them. That’s an important thing to remember, because, in most instances, it’s the defendants who blink and who pull the plug,” Levitt said.
And no wonder: Jurors got to see how decisions at the upper levels of General Motors got translated down into the real lives of consumers, how GM gave their own loyal customers the runaround, and how GM hid vital information for its own economic advantage.
In other words, not a great look for the company.
“The benefit and importance of the class action device,” Levitt said, “is to enable the representative aggregation of claims in a manner that put companies under severe economic pressure and risk and enables consumers, shareholders, and businesses to obtain the highest quality representation to level the playing field in a manner that fosters corporate deterrence, economic justice, and social and industrial change. Without that, companies are going to be able to keep on doing what they’re doing.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what the Chamber and its corporate lobby partners are trying to do via legislation that would shut down our courts for consumers, workers, and others harmed by wrongdoing. By using Congress to reshape the judiciary into just another tool in the rich and powerful’s arsenal of privileged protection, they are embarking on a radical campaign to re-define justice in America and re-write the rules about who has access to it.
Allowing that to happen would accelerate our country’s tilt towards a government of the people, for the people and by the people . . . in America’s corporate boardrooms.
So when you hear the lies that are coming from the GOP and the Chamber, remember those 38,000 people who banded together, exposed a major American company’s bad behavior, and made us all, and our families, a little bit safer along the way.