Soft Firm

Too often, the S.F. law firm of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein strikes settlements that give the firm millions of dollars in legal fees -- and its class action clients too little

"Opt-in" legislation would change these rules so a victim's right to sue couldn't be bargained away unless that victim had specifically chosen to enter a lawsuit. But opt-in class action standards have been dead in the water for years, in no small part thanks to millions of dollars in plaintiff-lawyer campaign contributions to state and federal legislators.

Case by case, settlement by settlement, "soft" plaintiff attorneys and their corporate allies are harming the American system of tort law, a wonderful institution unique in the world in its capacity to hand power to the little guy. As ideally practiced, little-guy lawsuits, class action and otherwise, have the potential to turn citizens into the equivalent of assistant attorneys general fighting to save the environment, protect consumers, and stop malfeasant corporations in their tracks.

Manufacturers, insurance companies, and their conservative allies have long hoped to neuter the civil court system via so-called tort-reform legislation. Bogus class action settlements are advancing that conservative agenda, but in a way that's disguised as aid to the underdog. Nowadays, to ensure that egregious corporate misconduct will have few significant consequences, it seems to me that a company need only make sure one of the Lieff, Cabrasers of the world is on the job, and a printer of discount coupons is available for contract.

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