Governor Brown, A Tort Reformer?

This has definitely been a wild year for legal reform in the State of California. With a Democratic Legislature and governor, you would think the trial lawyers would be cleaning up in the Golden State. Especially when you consider that they outspent the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC) by 8 to 1, according to the California Secretary of State's website.

California ranks among the worst in the nation for its legal climate. After 6 years of a Republican governor you would have thought we would be going into some potentially rough waters. If you had told me at the beginning of the year that no significant trial lawyer-backed legislation would be signed by the governor, I am not sure I would have taken that bet. However, this year turned out quite well.

Just between you and me, I sort of like Jerry Brown. He certainly is not the Jerry Brown of the 70's and he is by no means an ideologue. He said three years ago when he was looking at running for governor that he did not need a lot of headaches and that he would throw a little bit to organized labor, the teachers, business and the trial lawyers. And that is pretty much how this game is going.

According to CJAC, the statewide association dedicated to improving California’s civil liability system, it had a 97.5% kill rate on bills. CJAC opposed 41 bills and of those, 35 were amended to its satisfaction or held in the legislature. CJAC asked the governor to veto six bills and he vetoed five. Four of those bills clearly pitted CJAC against the trial lawyers with the governor siding with CJAC.

When you look at some of the bills you see a very pragmatic governor. For example, AB 325 (Lowenthal) would have led to additional unjustified litigation against employers by requiring employers to provide three days bereavement leave, enforceable by a private lawsuit with attorney's fees available only to the prevailing plaintiff. In his veto message, Governor Brown stated, "I am also concerned that this measure adds a more far reaching private right to sue than is contained in related statutes."

The governor also signed into law AB 1219 (Perea). This legislation allows for gas stations to ask for zip codes in order to deter fraud. The bill was necessary in light of a recent California Supreme Court decision Pineda v. Williams Sonoma Stores, Inc., which resulted in hundreds of class actions against a variety of industries for the collection of zip codes.

All in all it could have been a disaster, but really CJAC, the governor and some members of the state legislature made it a pretty good year. Kudos to Governor Brown, CJAC and members of the state Legislature for not making matters worse on the legal front here in California. Let's hope this pragmatic approach continues into 2012.

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