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Victims and relatives of victims of major accidents involving airplane and train crashes and other mass disasters will only be able to file lawsuits in federal court, under a new law passed by Congress with little attention last month. The law, called the MultiDistrict, Multiparty, MultiForum Trial Jurisdiction Act of 2001 and dubbed by some as the Multi-Multi-Multi bill, was included in the massive Justice Department appropriations bill enacted by Congress. President Bush signed it into law Nov. 2. The law is one of several measures sought by the Bush administration to stem large damage awards and force litigation from state to federal court. Currently, lawsuits stemming from plane crashes and other mass disasters may be filed in state courts, which generally are viewed as faster and more sympathetic to claimants. Indeed, plaintiff lawyers usually bring such actions in state court. Tom McLaughlin, a partner at Perkins & Coie in Seattle, which represents Boeing, announced the new law at the American Bar Association’s Forum on Air and Space Law in Hollywood on Nov. 8. The news came as a surprise to the roomful of aviation liability and airline defense lawyers in attendance, who included top officials from the Justice Department and the Air Carrier Association of America. Under the bipartisan bill, when lawsuits are filed in accident cases involving the deaths of 75 or more people due to airplane crashes, train derailments, hotel fires and other mass accidents, the cases must be filed in federal district court. They will then be consolidated under one federal judge for the purposes of discovery. Once discovery is completed, the cases will return to the original federal district court where they were filed for resolution of the liability and damage issues. According to the bill, “the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action involving diversity between adverse parties that arises from a single accident, where at least 75 natural persons have died in the accident at a discrete location.” The only exception is if the “substantial majority” of all plaintiffs live in the same state as the primary defendants, which is an unlikely situation. An example would be if an airliner owned by Dallas-based American Airlines crashed in Texas with mostly Texans aboard. The law applies to all accidents that occur 90 days after the bill was signed. In some ways, it resembles the law passed by Congress last November in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That bill allows Sept. 11 victims and their relatives to file lawsuits only in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Mike Eidson, treasurer of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and a partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, Fla., called the new law “a significant change.” “There are conservative federal courts I wouldn’t go near with a 10-foot pole,” said Aaron Podhurst, a plaintiffs’ attorney in aviation liability cases and a partner at Podhurst Orseck Josefsberg Eaton Meadow Olin & Perwin in Miami. But the ATLA did not strongly oppose the bill because some of the most objectionable provisions to the plaintiffs’ bar had been softened by the time of passage. The original legislation would have set tougher restrictions against filing in state court. A bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and passed by the House of Representatives provided that lawsuits stemming from accidents involving 25 or more injuries or deaths had to be filed in federal court. That bill languished in the Senate, which pressed for substantial modifications. “It’s not as sweeping as it could have been,” said one trial attorney who spoke on background. “We didn’t necessarily think this was something that needed to be fixed,” said Eidson, who has represented plaintiffs in ValuJet, American Airlines 587 and AeroPeru crash cases. “But ATLA is satisfied. It’s much better than the legislation that was originally proposed.” Both plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys say the new law has some advantages. They say it will reduce duplicative legal efforts and save both sides money. For example, after the May 1996 ValuJet crash, in which 110 people were killed when the plane crashed into the Everglades, lawsuits were filed in both Florida and Georgia state courts, as well as in federal courts. Executives from the airline and Sabre Tech, the jet maintenance company that was fined for failing to train its workers to handle hazardous materials, and third-party witnesses were deposed multiple times; thousands of pages of the same documents were sought by many different lawyers. “I was doing cases in Georgia, Aaron Podhurst and others were doing cases in Florida, and it cost a lot of money for both of us,” said Eidson, who notes that he and other plaintiff lawyers were all pursuing the same discovery in the ValuJet case. “When cases are filed in federal and state court, it’s a big waste of everyone’s time,” agreed McLaughlin, who testified before Congress in support of the bill, which his client, Boeing, strongly supported. The downside for plaintiffs is that civil lawsuits in federal court, under a multidistrict litigation panel, can take three to four years to resolve, compared to state court cases which can be resolved in as little as one year. In addition, claimants lose control of who represents them; their hired lawyers may not wind up on the MDL’s steering committee. For those reasons, Podhurst opposes the new law. “MDLs sound good — I’ve had great intellectuals tell me it’s a good idea,” he said. “In reality, it’s a very slow system.” Podhurst said, however, that the size of awards in federal versus state court is not an issue. In July 2001, for example, he and his partner, Steven Marks, won a $40 million settlement in an aviation liability case that was about to go to trial in U.S. District Court in Miami. Broward Circuit Judge Robert Lance Andrews said the new law is “going to really work those poor federal judges to death. It will definitely crowd the federal docket.” Still, defense lawyers expressed satisfaction with the new law. They long have complained that plaintiffs’ lawyers have an unfair advantage in state court, where they are often are friendly with the judges and even serve on their election committees. “It’s called home cooking,” said Randal Craft, a partner at Holland & Knight in New York and an airline defense attorney. Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, called the new law “pretty tame.” But he predicted it will be the first in a wave of bills pushed by the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to restrict consumer lawsuits against business. “I’m wondering if this is the first act,” he said.

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