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Plaintiffs lawyers just got a very early Christmas present. Under legislation signed in mid-September by California governor Gray Davis, they now have two years to sue in personal injury and wrongful death cases, and they’ve won a significant time advantage in summary judgment motions. Though billed as an effort to allow more time for the families of September 11 victims to sue, the controversial new law also gives plaintiffs lawyers a new cudgel with which to pound corporate defense lawyers. “Summary judgment is the worst part of the bad news,” says Michael Belote, lobbyist for the Sacramento-based California Defense Counsel, which represents 3,500 corporate lawyers in the state. Davis signed the law despite the usual complaints from defense attorneys that he was coddling plaintiffs lawyers, one of his key campaign contributor groups. Double Trouble? Written by the Consumer Attorneys of California, the bill doubles the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits in California. As of January 1, 2003, people who believe they have been wronged will have two years instead of one to decide whether to go to court. For September 11 victims, the law is retroactive. Consumer Attorneys has been working on the change for at least two years. But the issue recently became linked to the September 11 terrorist attacks when victims had to decide whether to file lawsuits or take part in the government’s reimbursement programs. On signing the bill, Davis invoked the attacks, saying the law would give victims more time to decide what to do. Feeling The Sting But that wasn’t what riled the California Defense Counsel. Besides dealing with September 11 and the statute of limitations, the law says the defense must give plaintiffs notice of summary judgment at least 75 days before a hearing on those motions. The previous deadline was 28 days. Belote contends that other time requirements, combined with the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act (which seeks to bring cases to trial within a year of filing), mean that defense attorneys won’t have enough time to prepare important motions. But Robert Cartwright, the president of Consumer Attorneys and a San Francisco solo practitioner, says that the new law will reduce frivolous suits and save valuable court time. He calls defense allegations of unfairly lost time “poppycock,” and says the new rules still allow plenty of time to prepare motions. “In my opinion, summary judgment is one of the most abused motions by defense,” Cartwright says. Although summary judgment originally was intended to weed out meritless claims, defense attorneys now file it as a matter of common practice, Cartwright says, adding that maybe the new rules will cut down that abuse. This article originally appeared in The Recorder, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel and part of American Lawyer Media.

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