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SACRAMENTO — Trial lawyers and car dealers, key factions in the debate over rewriting the state’s unfair competition law, have renewed negotiations to come up with a legislative compromise rather than do battle at the ballot box. Representatives from each interest group met as recently as Monday, said Norris Bishton Jr., a Southern California car dealer and practicing lawyer involved with the talks. The get-together took place in a conference room adjoining the Capitol office of Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, Bishton said. Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she and Burton met with the trial lawyers and car dealers individually before bringing the two together. “We obviously are motivated, and we want to shoot for that April deadline,” said Escutia, referring to April 16. That’s the day tort reformers are scheduled to turn in signatures they’ve collected for a November ballot initiative. If approved by voters, the measure would require that private plaintiffs show actual harm before filing an action under the state unfair competition law, Business & Professions Code � 17200. Trial lawyers and consumer groups resist substantially changing 17200 because it allows them to file representative actions before someone is harmed. But businesses believe some plaintiffs lawyers are overzealous with the law. In discussing his role in the meetings, Bishton emphasized his unique status. He not only owns a large group of car dealerships but also considers himself a trial lawyer. Bishton said he represents neither the car dealers nor lawyers but wants to help both reach a compromise. “What we hope to do is to see if there is a legislative solution that is acceptable to both sides,” said Bishton. It’ll be tough going, and both sides have been here before. Negotiations between the trial lawyers and car dealers — both well-moneyed interests with significant influence in Sacramento — collapsed two years ago after meetings failed to produce a deal on 17200. Last year, legislators also could not come up with a solution palatable to those groups and others affected by unfair competition litigation. The California Motor Car Dealers Association has since joined forces with tort reformers and other business interests to promote the November initiative, which several people close to the debate describe as a “nuclear bomb” aimed at trial lawyers. The plaintiffs bar responded by throwing support behind two other initiatives targeting businesses. But tort reformers have yet to push the button. Though they say they’ve collected nearly 400,000 signatures, they’re waiting to turn in their petitions to the secretary of state. They need about 373,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Bishton said that doesn’t leave much time to draft a compromise. Even if he and other car dealers come up with something, they’ll still have to persuade the Civil Justice Association of California and the California Chamber of Commerce — which are sponsoring the initiative — to go along. “I feel it is wonderful to have the personal injury lawyers, who for eight years have been denying that there’s anything wrong with this law — that they’re engaging in discussions, freely admitting that there’s something wrong,” said John Sullivan, president of CJAC. “That’s the trial lawyer equivalent of a glacier melting.” Sullivan said he wasn’t worried about the auto dealers agreeing to anything that would be bad for the rest of the business coalition behind the initiative. The president of Consumer Attorneys of California, James Sturdevant of San Francisco’s Sturdevant Law Firm, would not discuss any meetings with the car dealers. But, he said, his group remains interested in avoiding an expensive initiative fight, if possible. If a compromise emerges, the legislation will still have to get through both houses and be signed by the governor. There are already a handful of 17200 bills active in the current legislative session. One of those, SB 466, a spot bill from Escutia, has no substantial language now but can be used as a vehicle if language is drafted. Bishton said although Escutia helped organize the recent negotiations, there was no decision on whether her bill would be used for any compromise. Then there’s AB 2604 by Walnut Republican Assemblyman Robert Pacheco. His bill contains similar provisions as the tort reform initiative. Democratic Assemblyman Lou Correa of Santa Ana also has a bill, AB 2369, which is an updated version of a measure he pushed last year. Correa and other moderates met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year to discuss 17200 and other issues, but the governor, who included changing 17200 in his campaign platform, has not yet said exactly how far he believes the changes should go. His office has said he prefers a legislative solution to a ballot initiative.

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