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California’s trial lawyers were dealt a crushing defeat last Friday when a bill they had worked feverishly to pass was left to die in the Assembly without so much as a vote. From day one of the session it was clear that the Consumer Attorneys of California was betting everything it had on the passage of SB 11. The bill by state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, would have banned secret settlement agreements in cases where people were seriously injured or killed because of product defects or environmental hazards. But in the waning hours of the session it was apparent that it was the California business community that had the ear of Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, and not even the support and presence of Hollywood-made hero Erin Brockovich was going to get the bill heard on the floor. An identical bill out of the Assembly — AB 36 — was also left treading water in the Senate Rules Committee. “Today the California State Assembly doomed the people of California to repeat the Bridgestone/Firestone tragedies over and over again,” said CAOC President Bruce Broillet. “By refusing to vote on a bill that would have stopped secret settlements, they have let all California consumers down.” The failure to get a final vote on its legislative centerpiece is the latest blow for the Consumer Attorneys. Trial lawyers have been top contributors to Democratic legislators and Gov. Gray Davis. In the first half of 2001, trial lawyers gave incumbent legislators and statewide candidates $783,000 — $288,000 of which went to Davis alone. Nevertheless, Consumer Attorneys have found the Legislature and governor’s office in only marginally friendly territory in recent years. In addition to a ban on secret settlements, they have been unable to kill caps on medical malpractice damages or outlaw pre-dispute mandatory arbitration. Broillet Monday said he was hurt by the defeat of SB 11 and appalled at the “unprecedented and astounding” level of opposition from corporate America. “We pressed strongly for a vote,” he said. “The speaker decided it would not be voted on.” Broillet, whose group has pushed for similar legislation for 10 years, vowed to bring the bill back next year — although it’s unclear whether Gov. Gray Davis will ever sign it. “The intent of SB 11 was to save lives of consumers by disseminating corporate information about the defects and products and environmental hazards, which resulted in injury or death,” he said. “At the end of the day the fact remains that because of politicking, consumers will not have the right to know about defective products and environmental hazards,” he added. SB 11 was written in response to a flurry of accidents allegedly relating to defects in Bridgestone/Firestone tires and was supposed to protect consumers by providing them with information about similar defective products. But a late lobbying charge by the state’s high-tech community helped seal the fate of the legislation. SB 11′s main opposition came from TechNet, a political action committee made up of hundreds of the nation’s leading high-tech businesses. The group, which is known to pick its battles carefully, fiercely opposed the bill on the grounds that it went too far and would risk putting trade secrets and intellectual property into the public arena. Despite major changes to the bill, opposition never wavered and the two sides were unable to draft compromise legislation. Opponents of SB 11 had favored an alternative bill by state Assemblyman Joseph Simitian, D-Palo Alto. His AB 881 made little legislative progress, but would have required that smoking-gun documents obtained in discovery be sent to the proper government agency, but not be made public. “This is a great victory for California high-tech and biotech companies, employees and jobs,” said TechNet President and CEO Rick White about the failure of SB 11. “TechNet, its member companies and their employees are very appreciative that responsible members of the California Legislature recognized that both of these bills were more about enriching plaintiffs’ lawyers than they were about consumer protection.” White said his group supports the goals of public safety, but the bills, he said, went too far and were not the appropriate solution. Broillet countered that White’s group was not trying to protect trade secrets, but rather hide their “dirty secrets.”

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