The House Judiciary Committee today passed out of committee H.R. 5503, the Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act, or SPILL Act. The vote was 16-11. Chairman John Conyers issued a news releasing the committee approval of the bill he sponsored, "Judiciary Panel Passes SPILL Act to Bring Liability Laws to the 21st Century, asserting that the legislation "updates" the "out of date and unfair laws," the Death on High Seas Act (1920), Jones Act (1920), and the Limitation on Liability Act (1851). According to Conyers, the bill:
- It amends the Death on the High Seas Act and Jones Act to permit non-pecuniary damages.
- It repeals the outdated Limitation on Liability Act.
- It amends the Class Action Fairness Act to allow attorneys general to bring remedial actions in their own state courts.
- It limits the ability of parties responsible for oil and similar spills to prevent their employees from speaking to the media.
- It prevents parties responsible for oil spills from using the bankruptcy courts as a subterfuge to leave victims without adequate legal recourse.
- It provides that these changes will apply to pending and future cases, consistent with previous liability law changes enacted by Congress.
Note the third bullet: The bill represents the first significant effort we can recall to undermine the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 (or CAFA). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined by other business and legal reform groups sent a letter to the committee registering strong opposition to the provision.
Section 5 threatens to negate one of the core purposes of CAFA by creating a loophole that would encourage enterprising attorneys to avoid federal jurisdiction by finding attorneys general to join their class action lawsuits. Rather than promote justice, such a result would promote questionable collaborations between private attorneys and public officials, in which the attorneys seek the AG's signature in order to avoid federal jurisdiction and the AGs join essentially private lawsuits for political reasons. Meanwhile, it would do nothing to help the individuals and businesses affected by the Gulf spill.
None of the news reports we've seen on the committee action mention the class action angle.
- Associated Press, "House committee approves subpoena for BP documents"
- Bloomberg, "House Panel Approves Bill to Expand BP's Liability"
- Reuters, "House Democrats drafting oil spill legislation"
- Wall Street Journal, "House Panel Passes Spill-Liability Bill"