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SLAPP-BACK BILL PASSES ASSEMBLY SACRAMENTO � Legislation aimed at allowing the victims of strategic lawsuits against public participation to recover damages passed both legislative houses � with only a single vote of opposition. Assembly Bill 1158, by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, was overwhelmingly favored, with only Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, against it. “We’ve had some good votes coming out of both the Assembly and the Senate,” Lieber said. “That puts us in a good position in trying to get the governor’s signature.” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until early October to either sign Lieber’s bill � or allow it to become law without his signature. In the absence of opposition from business interests, the governor has no clear reason to oppose the bill, Lieber said. Specifically, AB 1158 attempts to clearly define SLAPP-backs, said Mark Goldowitz, a Berkeley attorney who heads up the California Anti-SLAPP Project. SLAPP-back actions are used by the targets of SLAPP suits to recover damages suffered as a result of having to defend against a case determined by a court to be a SLAPP. Lieber’s bill also provides that SLAPP-back suits are themselves consistent with anti-SLAPP laws designed to protect rights of free speech. “I don’t think when anti-SLAPPs first came into being that the proponents really envisioned the law would be turned around and used by the SLAPPers as a technique to fight people in the community,” Lieber said. � Jill Duman RULING MAY MEAN GAIN FOR ABUSE VICTIMS A recent federal ruling that parish assets of a Roman Catholic diocese in bankruptcy over sex abuse litigation belong to a diocesan bankruptcy estate charts a new area of the law, and could increase assets available to sex abuse victims. The ruling, by Judge Patricia Williams of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Washington, potentially increases the Diocese of Spokane’s assets from the $10 million it had claimed to more than $80 million in the assets of its 81 parishes. The assets would be available to 58 people who sued the diocese, as well as others who claim that they were sexually abused by clergy members. Williams rejected the diocese’s view that applying civil law interfered in its free exercise of religion, calling the matter before her “purely a secular dispute between creditors and a bankruptcy debtor, albeit one which is a religious organization.” In re the Catholic Bishop of Spokane, 04-08822-pcw11 (E.D. Wash. Bankr.). � The National Law Journal SAFETY REGULATIONS WOULD BAR SUITS A federal agency’s proposal to strengthen roof crush resistance standards for certain vehicles would pre-empt state court lawsuits against automakers that comply. Whether automakers should get that protection � recently proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration � is the subject of fierce debate among lawyers. But the agency probably has the authority to shield automakers from state tort liability, legal experts say. The lawsuit protection would take effect three years after the final rule is formally adopted by the NHTSA, which is expected in February. “Under most statutes, sure the agency can do it,” said administrative law specialist Richard Pierce, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington. The proposed standards don’t sit well with the plaintiffs’ bar, which charges that the rules are a giveaway to an industry that has consistently fought safety standards. “The concept of the stronger roof standard is a great idea and it’s long overdue, but the standard should not immunize manufacturers from liability,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Wigington of Corpus Christi, Texas’ Wigington Rumley, who has tried many rollover cases. “The fact that a vehicle merely meets a governmental minimum standard does not mean that it’s safe or nondefective.” Rollover defense specialist Richard Bowman of Minneapolis-based Bowman and Brooke, who has defended General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., said pre-emption “is dynamite stuff, a dramatic new development.” “NHTSA is taking a very aggressive stance,” he said. “I see nothing on the regulatory screen or in the courts that says they’re not going to enforce this.” � The National Law Journal

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