By Lindsey Pasieka
I used to tell people, “I don’t care about politics. I don’t know enough to have a discussion about it.”
I felt almost proud that it didn’t matter to me. I didn’t have to argue with people about economics and laws, and I could sit quietly, unfazed by the 2 a.m. rantings of friends who knew more. I felt safe, confident in what our country stood for, where it was going, and that it was all going to be okay.
I don’t feel that way anymore.
Let me be clear: This is not just a Donald Trump twitter issue, or even a Congress issue. It’s an issue with the choices we make as a country, the priorities we keep and the plights we now seem to ignore.
So I’ve learned about politics and law and economics, and now I’m the one ranting in the early hours of the morning. Most of my anger comes from one issue in particular: that the people in charge of America make choices without consideration for individuals, their needs, their safety, and their rights.
For example, it’s the right of any American to seek justice for wrongdoing, via an unbiased court system. Some choose to do this individually, as in many cases of medical malpractice and personal injury.
However, others choose to band together, creating a “class” with similarly affected people, to fight most often against industry leaders. This has several benefits: the costs of legal action are shared by many, the case is (hopefully) stronger, and the court can handle a single plea, rather than hundreds.
Usually, these cases aren’t “all about the money.” Rather, the plaintiffs want the company to stop doing whatever injured them in the first place, and admit its wrongdoing.
In 2017, this process makes the nightly news often. I’m sure you’ve heard about Honda’s Takata airbags and Johnson & Johnson’s allegedly cancer-causing baby powder. Surprisingly, as historic as the year continues to be for class action rulings, the idea of this public resource is under attack. Under President Trump, litigation has come forward to stifle class action suits; under his administration, they face a federal foe.
My “favorite” of these attacks is the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017. I still find it almost funny that the act has such a misnomer. Almost.
This Act was introduced as a measure to help clarify who can and cannot form a class to pursue a class action lawsuit. It determined that in order to form a class, all the members of the class must present the same “type and scope of injury.” You might be thinking that sounds reasonable.
However, think about why a class is formed in the first place. While reparations for class action suits often range in the millions of dollars, individual plaintiffs sometimes receive very little for their complaint. The majority of the money usually goes to the lawyers, with a substantial amount of what is left going to the named plaintiffs – those who represent the class in court.
For what might amount in some cases to winning a few hundred dollars, would you take the time, money and stress to go through an individual lawsuit? Would you even do it for a few thousand dollars? How about if the case you’re pleading left you sick, disabled or out of work with no money left?
Class action suits may be easier for court systems to handle and have benefits for the defendants as well, but let’s not kid ourselves: The people who need them most are the victims.
So, let’s go back to the “type and scope” issue. Type refers to how you were injured, scope delegating how severely. The act did not specify how these two clarifications will be decided in each case, so please take my thoughts with a grain of salt; please note also that injury could mean physical, mental, or monetarily, among other definitions.
An analogy for “type” might be a sexual harassment issue. Plaintiff A was subjected to inappropriate comments that made them anxious and fearful in the workplace – a clear mental or emotional injury. Plaintiff B was touched inappropriately and without their consent, a physical attack. Both plaintiffs were victimized by the same individual, for the same amount of time in the same workplace. Under the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act, they might be deemed unable to form a class because their type of injury was not identical.
Scope is easier to explain. It might refer to monetary damages, with one member of a class being entitled to more than another. Or it could refer to the level of injury: think of a broken arm versus a fatality.
Put together, these two clarifications give the defendant the upper hand. With a class of dozens to hundreds of people with different background stories and no specific instructions on how to evaluate type and scope, a skilled legal team will have ample means to throw out an entire case based on this principle.
Now, if this issue can be overcome, and a class is successfully formed, there is yet another obstacle. In the name of fairness, the act stipulates caps on legal fees, again without instructions for enforcement.
Fairness in Class Action Litigation leaves far too much open for interpretation. It’s certainly enough to make many lawyers nervous. Personally, I see both sides of the issue. If the intent was to limit the reparations that are dedicated to lawyers’ fees and therefore kept out of the hands of victims, the idea was a good one. In practice, it may dissuade many law firms from opting to help plaintiffs because their fees are no longer guaranteed — even the percentage of damages won may not be disclosed prior to proceedings.
Legal teams face more uncertainty with further reforms under consideration. Proposed tort law reforms, for example, would place a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages, like pain and suffering.
Many fear that these caps will dissuade law firms from taking on class action cases that are less economically beneficial. Perhaps this is a fear predicated on the stereotype of a greedy lawyer, and I urge you to remember that there will always be those willing to help people no matter the profit. But the task falls on the victims to find these Good Samaritans.
Go ahead, tell me this is just one law. Just one moment that really doesn’t mean anything, and people will find help if they “really want to.” I’m happy to discuss it with you, regardless of whether or not you agree with me. I’m happy to know enough to be able to.
In 2017, I care about politics, and I won’t back down from the fight.
Lindsey Pasieka is a Consumer Rights Investigator at ConsumerSafety.org. She focuses on legal rights and women’s issues. In her spare time, Lindsey volunteers for animal rescue. She owns a rescued Bengal cat named Lava, who frequently meows about whatever is on her mind.