Guest column: Bill would thwart certain shakedown lawsuits

The Civil Justice Assn. of California congratulates California State Assemblyman Mike Gatto on his bill AB 227, which is currently on Gov. Brown's desk awaiting signature. This bill, if signed, will help to curb an area of abusive Proposition 65 lawsuits. Our association has urged the governor to sign this important legislation.

When Proposition 65 was passed, its intention was to keep California's drinking water clean and to inform consumers about certain toxic chemicals in consumer products. Unfortunately, a number of unscrupulous trial lawyers have abused the law to shake down small businesses who don't post the required warning signs.

Many of these lawyers file multiple lawsuits against dozens of businesses, all for the same claim. No one was hurt; no one got sick; the only “problem” is the lack of a warning sign. Because of the way Proposition 65 is written, that “problem” can lead to thousands of dollars in legal fees and fines.

If Gov. Brown signs Gatto's bill into law, some restaurants and small businesses will have 14 days to put up a notice (for certain types of exposures) before they could be sued. This law revision would, we hope, shut down some of the worst examples of abusive Proposition 65 lawsuits. This positive change would help restaurants and businesses in Glendale, Burbank and throughout the state.

Ultimately, all businesses would benefit from a grace period. Such a change would lead to increased compliance with Proposition 65 and would reduce the lawsuits that are little more than legalized extortion, with signs that we all see, but basically ignore.

On my way to work each morning, I get into my minivan, a vehicle I bought because of its high-safety rating by a national consumer magazine. My driver-side window contains a sticker advising me that the car contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm. After dropping my kids at school, I park in a parking lot that has a warning that the lot contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm. On my way to my coffee shop, I pass a hotel that contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer or reproductive harm. And sure enough, in the window of the coffee shop is the same sign. That's four cancer-causing events before I even start my day.

I notice the signs, but I wonder if many of the people around me even see them. When we are over-warned, warnings become meaningless.

Proposition 65 was a well-intentioned law that's being misused by a small subset of the trial bar — folks who are getting rich, suing small businesses for the lack of a sign that has become so commonplace as to be universally ignored.

Thankfully, Gatto's legislation, if signed by the governor, will improve the situation for some business owners like the Coffee Table in Eagle Rock. Maybe next year the legislature will try to fix the situation for other businesses too.


KIM STONE is the president of the Civil Justice Assn. of California,

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