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SACRAMENTO � A tort reform group backed by the insurance, manufacturing, oil and pharmaceutical industries has filed papers launching a ballot initiative that would restrict punitive damages in California civil suits. Manufacturers that comply with applicable state and federal laws and disclosure requirements would not be slapped with punitive damages in defective-product lawsuits under initiative language submitted to the attorney general’s office Wednesday by John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California. The proposed measure, targeted for the November 2006 ballot, is similar to recent legislative and initiative efforts in other states to either cap punitive damages or limit their use. “We have been looking at ways to address inappropriate and expensive punitive damages, and we explored this solution as one that would not only protect those that are injured by a defective product, but at the same time would encourage better compliance with government regulations,” Sullivan said. “We want to discourage fishing expeditions for punitive damages that basically extort a lot of money from companies that ought to be spending it on better research for their products.” The initiative would not cap eligible punitive damages or limit awards for actual injuries. “This initiative is simply an effort by some unethical big corporations to avoid responsibility for faulty or defective products that harm or kill people and to try to gain an unfair advantage against average Californians in our civil courts,” Frank Pitre, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, said in a prepared statement. “Every citizen should be outraged.” Trial lawyers already fended off a contingency fee-cap initiative earlier this year by striking a deal with the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical companies dropped the initiative after the Consumer Attorneys promised not to back a separate ballot measure that sought to slash drug prices. For months prominent trial lawyers with Consumer Attorneys have predicted publicly that tort-reform groups would challenge them again with an initiative. In the fall, attorneys launched a series of TV commercials aimed at improving the public’s often-negative perception of their work. Consumer Attorneys has also stashed away $2 million � money originally raised to fight the scuttled contingency-fee initiative � to try to deter future initiative attacks. Pitre was not available Thursday to discuss his organization’s possible response to the proposed initiative. Sullivan’s filing, made with no fanfare, comes at an odd time in the political season. The Legislature is in recess until January and lawmakers have yet to unveil their legislative packages � that may or may not address tort reform � for the upcoming session. The initiative also seems at odds with a statement issued Wednesday by California Chamber of Commerce leaders, who said ballot-box battles over labor union dues or “similar” measures would divert attention from efforts to pass a multibillion-dollar infrastructure bond. Calls to representatives of the chamber and the Personal Insurance Federation of California, traditional tort-reform allies, were not returned Thursday. Sullivan said the Civil Justice Association of California hasn’t put together a coalition of supporters yet. “Obviously when you talk about product liability, you’re talking about huge parts of the business sector, everything from automakers to pharmaceuticals to chemical companies and business of all kinds,” Sullivan said. “We expect them to assess the net value of investing in a campaign like this.” CJAC won a major battle against the trial lawyers in 2004 when voters adopted Proposition 64, which limits civil suits filed under California’s business practice laws. Sullivan said he’s willing to talk with Consumer Attorneys about the new initiative but added that he doesn’t have any specific demands. “They have an interest in narrowing this law so that punitive damages punish people who really deserve it,” Sullivan said. The attorney general’s office is expected to assign a title and summary to the initiative by February. Supporters must then collect more than 373,000 signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot.

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