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SACRAMENTO — Trial lawyers have expressed irritation that California’s well-heeled car dealers may bankroll an election fight to revamp the state’s plaintiffs-friendly unfair competition law. Now they’re throwing their political weight behind a proposed initiative that would tighten regulations on how dealers sell used cars. James Sturdevant, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, said his group helped craft a ballot initiative filed last week that would create a used-car buyer bill of rights and limit the amount car dealers can charge to set up customers with loan financing. The trial lawyers may also help fund the measure, Sturdevant said. The initiative is strongly opposed by the California Motor Car Dealers Association, which has raised more than $3.5 million for another initiative that would curtail trial lawyers’ ability to file lawsuits under the unfair competition statute, Business & Professions Code § 17200. The anti-car dealer initiative was floated last week by Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, or CARS. If approved by voters, the plan would allow car buyers to return autos to a dealer within three days of purchase. It would also change how dealers do financing deals, forcing them to tell buyers their credit scores and forbidding dealers from charging more than $150 to help set up loans, as well as setting up standards for “certified” used cars. The move announced Monday is the first indication of Consumer Attorneys’ wider strategy of supporting anti-business initiatives as a way to win the fight over 17200. Sturdevant, of San Francisco’s Sturdevant Law Firm, said he prefers the term “pro-consumer” to “anti-business,” although he agreed that no matter how they’re described, businesses won’t like the initiatives the plaintiffs bar ends up supporting. By putting its clout behind other ballot measures, Consumer Attorneys would force businesses to draw resources away from the 17200 initiative, compelling them to fight a ballot war on several fronts. The strategy could also give the plaintiffs bar a bigger bargaining chip in discussions with the separate business constituencies that support reforming 17200. That could be important in trial lawyers’ dealings with the Car Dealers Association, which has raised significantly more money for the 17200 initiative than its tort reform and business allies. The dealers unsuccessfully negotiated with the plaintiffs bar to craft a 17200 compromise and have said they’re still open to a legislative solution that would avoid putting the initiative on the ballot. Consumer Attorneys also has not ruled out introducing its own initiative to modify 17200 that would compete with the business-backed measure on the November ballot, Sturdevant said. He also said he wouldn’t be surprised if some other group introduced a trial lawyer-friendly 17200 initiative. Consumer Attorneys’ support of the car-buyer initiative was “independent” of its 17200 strategy, Sturdevant said. Even so, the plaintiffs lawyer said there was a “nexus” between the two issues because car dealers will now have to devote their financial resources to two different causes. The dealers will have to spend money to oppose the measure, Sturdevant said, “at the same time they’re spending money to try to eliminate any effective challenge to their business practices.” Sturdevant didn’t say which other initiatives Consumer Attorneys might support, but mentioned that it’s “initiative season” in Sacramento and that his group would consider whether to support measures as they came up. “This is right from the trial lawyer initiative playbook,” said Brian Maas, lobbyist for the Car Dealers Association. “We think, frankly, it’s an attempt to get dealers to back off the 17200 initiative fight. That’s not going to happen.” The car measure is intended to create a more consumer-friendly car market, said CARS President Rosemary Shahan. Although Shahan said she’s confident her volunteers can get the approximately 374,000 signatures she needs to qualify for the ballot, Maas said that wouldn’t happen unless the trial lawyers throw $1.5 million to $2 million at the campaign. “They’ll have to make a calculation whether it’s a good investment,” Maas said. Consumer Attorneys has formidable fund-raising capabilities. Each election cycle the group organizes its members to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars, overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates and causes. Even so, Shahan said she wouldn’t necessarily welcome the trial lawyers’ support; their influence in Sacramento comes with some political baggage, she said. “It’s the only thing the other side has to smear you with — to be a pawn of the trial lawyers,” Shahan said. Shahan said she appreciated the trial lawyers’ legal help with the initiative, but now would prefer to be left alone to conduct a grassroots campaign. The trial lawyers have never developed grassroots, Shahan said, and instead just move from battle to battle. “That’s why they’re so vulnerable” to criticism, she said. Sturdevant, however, said the measure tracks with his group’s efforts. “We represent clients every day who face issues dealing with car dealers. Through our clients we have direct experience,” Sturdevant said. The CARS initiative was submitted to the attorney general’s office last week. Within two months, AG lawyers will prepare the title and summary, which is the language that voters see when they sign petitions to try to qualify a measure for the ballot. CARS will have two more months to gather signatures in order to qualify the measure.

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