Julia Roberts has delivered a lot of great lines. One of my favorites is from Erin Brockovich: “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley,” she tells the alarmed corporate lawyer about to take a sip.
In the movie, Roberts’ character meets with moms, dads, and children who’ve become sick after the local utility let poisons leak into their small town’s drinking water. “You want their diseases?” she asks after rattling off a list of people affected by the spill.
Roberts’ character helps the people of the town band together to sue the company. This type of lawsuit—called a class action—has been used by Americans of all stripes for the past 50 years to fight back when an unethical business or unjust government policy is making them sick, cheating them of their money, or otherwise screwing them over.
But now, because of corporate special interests and their influence over some members of Congress, class actions are in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past.
Late in the evening on Feb. 17, when the rest of us were distracted by Trump’s latest tweet, a bill got served up in Congress that would sound the death knell for class actions. Through a long list of new rules (that sound almost innocent to the non-lawyer, but are anything but), the bill would make it so class actions essentially become extinct. The House is set to vote on this bill (H.R. 985, the misnamed “Fairness in Class Actions” bill) next week, probably on Wednesday, March 8.
I work at a small nonprofit that supports David v. Goliath type cases like the one in Erin Brockovich. Some of the cases are famous—think the 21st century equivalent of Brown v. Board of Education or the multi-state case against Big Tobacco. Others you’ll probably never hear about, but they fight against injustice (and win!) for groups who too often have no power: foster kids, immigrants, Native Americans, the sick, and seniors.
Without this essential check in place, our delicately balanced system would tip over and land with a heavy thud onto the side of corporate special interests. Sure, the vast majority of businesses are ethical and most government policies are fair—but what about when they aren’t? What about when the poisons in the groundwater give us cancer, or when our employer refuses to promote women because they have this annoying habit of getting pregnant, or when our bank creates a bunch of fake accounts or cooks the books or destroys our retirement in some other new way they’ve dreamt up? What would we do then, if class actions were impossible?
We could still sue individually, but that assumes anyone could afford to foot the legal bill. Do you know how much it costs to hire your own lawyer for a lawsuit like this? $10,000? That barely gets you started. $100,000? Maybe. But if your case stretches on for a decade, as some cases do, try over $1,000,000—what with depositions and electronic discovery to conduct, motions to dismiss to fight off, and appeals on top of appeals on top of appeals.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a million dollars (or even one-tenth that) to devote to suing anybody. Right now there is no line item in my family’s budget for “lawsuits.” So basically, in a no-class-action future scenario, if I get screwed over by a company or the government, there will be absolutely nothing I can do about it. This would be a huge win for anyone itching to start their own Ponzi scheme, but a terrifying disaster for the rest of us.
Listen, I understand. There are a lot of crazy things going on right now, and we’ve all got a lot to worry about. But this is important. We all need to stop reading this article and immediately call/email/fax our Congressional representatives and tell them to vote NO on H.R. 985. You can also text your zip code to (520) 200-2223 to receive a text back with phone numbers of your Congress members.
Otherwise, when the excrement hits the air conditioning (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut for that delicate phrasing), we regular Americans will have no power to fight back. And call me cynical, but there sure does seem to be a lot of excrement flying around these days. This is no time to allow our elected officials to take away one of our most significant tools of self-protection.
I hope I never have to band together with thousands of my fellow Americans to sue a corporate giant or branch of government, but I most definitely want to retain the right to do so.