Washington — The Senate on Thursday reined in class-action lawsuits in a vote that pitted consumer advocates against business interests.
President Bush and Republican leaders pushed hard for the bill -- the first piece of a plan to overhaul the civil justice court system. They argue that frivolous lawsuits are hurting the country and being manipulated by millionaire lawyers.
But opponents said the bill thwarted justice for aggrieved victims and could let companies off the hook for misconduct. Examples of cases that would be harder to press under the legislation, they argue, include recent suits against tobacco companies, the Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated schools and action against companies that made lead-based paint.
The 72-26 vote sends the measure to the House, which could act as early as next week. The vote came after a series of closer defeats of Democratic amendments that would have exempted civil rights cases, allowed state attorneys general to bring the cases in state courts and made other changes sought by consumer groups.
Bush called it "a strong step forward in our efforts to reform the litigation system and keep America the best place in the world to do business."
The bill affects class-action lawsuits, in which a number of plaintiffs unite to sue in cases such as fraud and injury inflicted by a company. Many of those suits would be funneled into federal court, which is considered less amenable to plaintiffs and throws out some cases where state laws conflict.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called it "one of the most unfair, anti-consumer proposals to come before the Senate in years."
"It slams the courthouse doors on a wide range of injured plaintiffs," Reid said.