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House Republicans pushed through legislation Tuesday aimed at reducing frivolous lawsuits. The Republicans prodded Democrats with statements by the Democratic presidential team of John Kerry and John Edwards in favor of tougher sanctions against lawyers who abuse the system. Most Democrats were not persuaded, and voted against the bill. They said it went too far in limiting access to the courts and was a campaign-season distraction from more important matters before Congress. The bill passed, 229-174, sending it to an uncertain fate in the Senate. Democrats did succeed in blocking another bill, which would have provided youth athletic leagues, school athletic associations and other nonprofit sports groups immunity from lawsuits if the harm did not involve willful or criminal misconduct. Supporters said sports groups should not get sued when athletes get hurt following the rules. Opponents argued the bill also could prevent labor, environmental or discrimination lawsuits. The 217-176 vote fell short of the two-thirds needed under a special House procedure. On the broader lawsuit legislation, Republicans said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and running mate John Edwards support tough mandatory sanctions against attorneys who abuse the system. “This week is John Edwards appreciation week as we take up four lawsuit abuse prevention bills,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Edwards was a successful trial lawyer before he won a North Carolina Senate seat. Edwards and Kerry have stated that lawyers who pursue frivolous lawsuits should face sanctions. They have also criticized White House and GOP approaches that restrict access to the courts or cap awards. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said Congress was wasting time on “frivolous legislation” as the election approaches. Democrats challenged GOP claims that frivolous lawsuits were on the rise. However, the American Tort Reform Association, which lobbies for liability reform, said lawsuit abuse is at an all-time high, with the average family of four paying a “tort tax” of $3,236. The House-passed legislation would revive a pre-1993 rule setting mandatory sanctions against lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits. The policy-setting Judicial Conference of the United States opposed the bill, saying it returned the courts to a system that required sanctions for every violation of the rule and “spawned thousands of court decisions and generated widespread criticism.” Currently, it is up to the judge to decide whether to pursue penalties. The bill also prevents “forum shopping,” in which attorneys seek courts known for handing out huge damage awards. The measure requires that personal injury cases be brought only where the plaintiff resides or was injured, or where the defendant’s place of business is located. The bill also imposes a one-year law license suspension if an attorney files three or more frivolous cases in the same court jurisdiction. “Frivolous lawsuits bankrupt individuals, ruin reputations, drive up insurance premiums, increase health care costs and put a drag on the economy,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, sponsor of the bill. People sue “theme parks because the haunted houses are too scary, they sue the weather channel for an inaccurate forecast, and they sue McDonalds claiming a hot pickle dropped from a hamburger caused a burn and mental injury,” he said. The House defeated, 226-177, a Democratic substitute that would preserve the right to sue a foreign corporation or an American company that relocates overseas, saying the GOP forum shopping provision protects companies that move abroad to avoid U.S. taxes. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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