[The following op-ed article comes from today's SF Chronicle. Please note that Prop. 64 on the California ballot would close the courthouse doors to animal activists as well as consumer, environmental and other activists seeking justice. Contrary to the pro-64 TV ads, this proposition is not about preventing frivolous lawsuits. It's about protecting businesses from meritorious lawsuits meant to end abuses by businesses. Please read on and vote no on 64.]
AN OPPOSING VIEW: PROP. 64
Protect consumers and fight pollution -- No on Prop. 64
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
When Safeway changed the expiration dates and sold old meat that should have been pulled from the shelves, consumers sued in 1990 and forced the supermarket chain to stop this deceptive practice. When Crystal Geyser and other bottlers sold water containing illegal levels of arsenic and bacteria, environmentalists sued in 1999 and the bottlers agreed to improve filtration to remove the contaminants.
But if Proposition 64 had been in effect, these cases would have been thrown out of court. That's why a wide array of business interests put Prop. 64 on the ballot. Their common agenda is to take the teeth out of California's law against unfair business competition. Since 1933, this law has given watchdog groups and publicly spirited citizens access to the courts when corporations break the law.
Nonprofit public-interest organizations have used the unfair competition law to stop big banks when they invaded our financial privacy, to stop HMOs and retail chains when they deceived customers, and to stop oil refiners when they polluted our water.
It's no surprise that business interests have poured $18 million into the Yes on 64 campaign, according to the California secretary of state. Major automobile manufacturers have donated $1.5 million to support the measure. Philip Morris, Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Microsoft, Pfizer, Southern California Edison, Allstate, State Farm, Bank of America, Citigroup, Blue Shield, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and many others have each weighed in with donations supporting Prop. 64 at the six-figure level.
If the initiative wins, only the state attorney general, county district attorneys or individuals who have suffered a personal financial loss or injury will have recourse to the courts when a business breaks the law. Consumer groups, environmental organizations and public-health advocates would be barred from filing enforcement actions in the public interest.
Business opponents call these "frivolous lawsuits" -- but if you care about clean air and water or consumer fraud, they are deadly serious. Here are a few more actual cases successfully filed by watchdog groups or concerned citizens under the unfair competition law -- cases that judges would have tossed had Prop. 64 been in effect:
-- Unocal and other oil refiners were sued and were forced to clean up groundwater they had unlawfully contaminated with toxic MTBE.
-- Alta Dena Dairy was sued and forced to stop its misleading advertisements that falsely claimed that potentially dangerous raw milk products were safe and healthy.
-- Squaw Valley Ski Corporation was sued and stopped unlawfully clear- cutting a pristine Sierra forest containing 300- to 600-year-old trees.
-- Chevron was sued and forced to put pollution controls on oil tankers that were emitting unlawful toxins contaminating the Los Angeles Port area.
In each of these cases, nonprofit groups or public spirited citizens used the Unfair Competition Law to stop unlawful business practices before someone got hurt or irreversible environmental harm occurred.
California's unfair competition law has also been used to protect nursing- home residents from theft of funds, to stop illegal tobacco billboards near schools and playgrounds, and to recover unpaid wages for workers who were cheated out of overtime pay by major retail chains.
Opponents of Prop. 64 include the American Lung Association of California, the California division of the American Cancer Society, the California Nurses Association, AARP, Consumers Union, the Sierra Club, the Consumer Federation of California and the League of Conservation Voters.
It's a safe bet that enforcement actions against polluters and corporate crooks will dramatically decline if only district attorneys and the attorney general had access to the courts. Attorney General Bill Lockyer recently warned: "Prop. 64 would crack a cornerstone of California's environmental protection structure. ... And it would disarm citizens fighting banks that violate their privacy rights."
Prop. 64 is a brazen attempt to strip Californians of a powerful tool for justice. Voters should reject this outrageous overreach by big business.
Richard Holober is executive director of the Consumer Federation of California (www.consumerfedofca.org).
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