A Break for Joe Consumer

Disturbing but true: Special interests bear some responsibility for the thousands of Californians who in the past decade have been injured or killed in accidents caused by defective tires, defrauded by insurance companies after the Northridge earthquake or harmed by dangerous drugs. Also, thousands more have fallen prey to identity thieves whose criminal activity is being made easier by special interests.

It's a safe bet that much tragedy and loss would have been avoided if companies were required to disclose evidence of hazards or fraud and if credit information were better protected. Proposals to do these things are before the state Legislature, but special interests have, as is their habit, mounted a vigorous campaign to keep them from becoming law.

* Disclose Dangers. One worthy bill under attack, SB 11, would limit the ability of manufacturers and others to pressure plaintiffs in injury lawsuits to sign secrecy agreements as the price of settlement. Such agreements keep the public from seeing court documents that reveal evidence of defective products, environmental hazards or fraud--which of course leads to more injuries from defective products, more tragedy and more lawsuits.

Texas, Florida and more than a dozen other states already refuse to let companies extort injured plaintiffs in this way. In California, the drive to protect consumers from such hazards is already 10 years old; the first bill made it out of the Legislature but then-Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed it. Subsequent measures died more quickly, and the prospects for success this year are still clouded.

Manufacturers, drug companies and insurers are the chief enemies of SB 11, by Martha Escutia (D-Whittier)--even though the bill allows companies to shield legitimate trade secrets.

The measure cleared the Senate last week, but lobbyists are stalking it in the Assembly. Opponents insist that opening trial court records would prompt a litigation deluge and force businesses to flee California. Yet neither has happened in states with strong disclosure laws.

* Protect Identities Californians should be better protected against identity theft, one of the fastest-growing crimes. Each year, some 500,000 Americans find out the hard way that their names and Social Security numbers have been hijacked. The imposters rack up huge credit card bills, rent apartments, even purchase property and then disappear, leaving mountains of debt and perhaps years of hassle for the people whose good names and credit they stole.

SB 168, to go before the Assembly Banking and Finance Committee on Monday, would limit the use of Social Security numbers, the key in identity theft. For example, businesses and government agencies could not publicly post the numbers or require them for access to products and services. Health plans, employers and banks could no longer use Social Security numbers on correspondence or identification cards.

The bill, by Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina Del Rey), would also give consumers the right to block access to their credit reports. Lenders and retailers generally require the information in these reports to issue credit or loans. Without it, an identity thief will usually be rejected, even if he has some unsuspecting person's name, address, Social Security number and other information. That provision has sparked vehement opposition from credit bureaus that make money from the sale of reports and from credit card companies that troll those reports in search of new customers.

Surely lawmakers care more about protecting consumers against major fraud than about maximizing these companies' revenue. Surely.

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