If Congress kills class actions, the consequences could be deadly
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There’s no question that Americans disagree about guns. We disagree on when and where guns should be carried, who should own guns, whether being armed makes a tense situation better or worse, and how to prevent gun violence. But, hopefully, we can all agree that guns shouldn’t have dangerous unintended defects — they shouldn’t fire when dropped or fire when the safety is on. In other words, they should only fire when the user intends to shoot.

Brazilian gun manufacturer Forjas Taurus’s pistols didn’t meet that most basic expectation. Iowa police officer Chris Carter was pursuing a fleeing suspect when his Taurus pistol, with the safety still on, fell from his hip, hit the ground, and fired on impact. Fortunately, that particular unintended shot caused only property damage, but it — unsurprisingly — shook Carter enough that he decided to see what he could do to get the dangerous Taurus pistols off the streets. After all, no amount of gun experience or training in gun safety could prevent a similar situation from injuring or even killing an officer or bystander.

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After extensive testing revealed several Taurus pistols were prone to firing when dropped and with the safety on, Carter brought a class action against Taurus on behalf of the Americans who own the nearly 1 million defective pistols in the United States.

 

The result? In a settlement valued at $239 million, the parties agreed that Taurus pistol owners can send their pistols — in any age or condition, and at Taurus’s expense — to Taurus and receive a new, comparable, non-defective pistol in return. Alternatively, if class members prefer, they can receive $200 in lieu of a new pistol.

Further, class members are still free to pursue claims for injuries resulting from an unintended discharge. Because it removes dangerously defective guns from circulation at no cost to owners — indeed, they can get a brand new gun — it’s hard to imagine a better outcome for Taurus pistol owners and users, or anyone else who might be in the vicinity of one. And it’s also an outcome that wouldn’t have been possible without bringing the suit as a class action; an individual suit could not have prompted a wholesale gun replacement program, and a well-advertised recall by the Brazilian firm was unlikely.

Class action suits like this one — and its great result — may no longer be possible if an anti-class action bill (H.R. 985) before Congress becomes law. It’s already made it through the House and is headed to the Senate. The goal of the bill is to eliminate class actions, exactly like this one, that address defective products.

Representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which has vigorously supported the bill and lobbied heavily for its passage) and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Immigrant advocacy groups shouldn't be opposing Trump's raids Top Republican releases full transcript of Bruce Ohr interview MORE (R-Va.), have repeatedly argued that if only some subset of a type of product will manifest a defect, that it should not be possible for everyone who bought the product to bring a legal claim. Instead, the sponsors of the bill argue that only those persons hurt by a product that acted in the defective manner should be able to bring a lawsuit.

Under the plaintiffs’ theory in the Taurus case, every consumer who bought one of these guns had a claim because they paid too much for the guns – if they’d realized that many or all of this type of gun would fire if the gun were ever dropped, they would not have paid the price that they’d paid. Under the plaintiffs’ theory (which is currently the law in America), over 100,000 consumers were able to get a dangerous gun replaced with a safe gun, or to get a cash refund. Under the theory embodied in H.R. 985, however, only people actually shot by a dropped gun would have a legal claim.

Goodlatte’s approach may serve the interests of corporations that don’t want to be sued (which is probably why so many of them donate money to his campaigns), but we shouldn’t have to wait for each dangerously defective gun to unintentionally shoot someone before it can be taken off the streets.

Class actions are one of the few effective tools in getting dangerous products out of the market. Let’s not throw that away — the consequences could be deadly.

Paul Bland is executive director of Public Justice, a national public interest law firm that pursues high-impact lawsuits to combat social and economic injustice, protect the Earth’s sustainability and challenge predatory corporate conduct and government abuses. Find him on Twitter @FPBland. This post was co-authored by Public Justice Staff Attorney Leah M. Nicholls. 


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