Another tort reform battle likely

Staff Writer

Another bruising and expensive tort reform battle appears likely in the November election, with two initiatives qualified and another pending. Mandatory additional prison sentences for certain felonies and two constitutional amendments limiting or eliminating immunity from civil liability for judges also are still being circulated.

All together, three initiatives have qualified, signatures have been submitted for nine more measures, and backers of another 31 initiatives continue to circulate petitions for signatures.

Affirmative action, political campaign reform and an increase in the minimum wage are among the key issues voters may be asked to decide.

Although high tech entrepreneur Tom Proulx dropped his bid to place another fee cap initiative on the ballot, the three other measures will keep the civil justice system on the front burner.

Shareholder rights

The big money measure, expected to generate a $15 million campaign, is the so-called "Lerach initiative" to expand shareholder rights lawsuits and prevent restrictions on fee arrangements attorneys may make with clients.

The "Retirement Savings and Consumer Protection Act" would expand the ability of retirement fund investors to file and win securities fraud lawsuits in state court and increase corporate officers' and directors' individual liability in such cases.

Backed by San Diego securities class action plaintiffs lawyer William Lerach, the measure is endorsed by a wide coalition of supporters including the California Congress of Seniors and the California State Employees Association. It faces opposition from a business coalition headed by the California Chamber of Commerce and the Association for California Tort Reform. Proulx said he will be active in the opposition campaign.

The measure will proceed despite the defeat in March of Proposition 201, which it was originally designed to counteract. "We have to proceed with our initiative enhancing the ability of defrauded investors to sue in the state court because of a recently enacted federal law, passed by Congress over President Clinton's veto, that severely limits the ability of defrauded investors to use the federal courts to recover their losses," says Sean Crowley, press director for the Lerach campaign.

Cap prohibitions

The second initiative to qualify, sponsored by the Consumer Attorneys of California, would prohibit statutory caps on contingent fees.

It also would reiterate current law and State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct governing frivolous lawsuits and excessive fees.

California Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush is sponsoring a third initiative to prohibit uninsured motorists and drunken drivers from collecting noneconomic damages from drivers who injure them.

The measure also would deny recovery of damages to a convicted felon whose injuries were caused during the commission of a felony.

The tort reform effort follows the defeat in March of Propositions 200, 201 and 202. Proulx said he decided to drop his efforts after talks with Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer and Gov. Wilson produced a commitment to enact securities litigation reform.

He had collected enough signatures to qualify the fee cap initiative for the November ballot and retains until June 30 the option of using the same signatures to place the measure on a future ballot.

Prison sentences

The measure to increase prison sentences is sponsored by Mike Reynolds, the Fresno photographer who spearheaded the "three strikes and you're out" initiative of 1994.

Although not yet qualified for the ballot, it would require additional state prison sentences for specified felonies, such as murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery, if a firearm is used.

If convicted, a felon would receive 10 additional years if armed with a gun, 20 more years if the gun is fired, and 25 more years if the firearm causes injury.

The proposed constitutional amendments, which require collection of nearly 700,000 signatures by June 26, would limit or eliminate judges' immunity from civil liability for deliberately violating the law.

The first, which also would limit the immunity of commissioners and arbitrators, creates three new statewide special grand juries with the power to indict, convict and sentence judges for criminal conduct.

Liability limits

The second measure to eliminate the civil liability of judges, prosecutors and social workers also permits civil suits against prosecutors and social workers for violating the law. Prosecutors motivated by gender, racial and other bias also could be sued.