Commentary: Schwarzenegger restarts old fight over lawsuits

Governors and other politicians come to the Capitol and eventually go away, some to other political venues and some to obscurity.

As they come and go, however, thousands of interest groups and their professional warriors remain, fighting and refighting battles for decades.

None of those conflicts is more enduring than "tort war," the struggle over the rules governing injury lawsuits waged by trial lawyers, who would expand the ability to sue and collect damages, and business groups that want to restrict suits.

While some of their clashes are obvious – the decades-long fight over medical malpractice damages, for instance – others are less so, involving surrogates and side issues, and for the most part, it's been a stalemate.

In 1975, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the medical malpractice law, capping pain and suffering damages, that personal injury lawyers hate.

Since then, Consumer Attorneys of California, the trial lawyer lobby, has occasionally moved tort bills in a Democratic Legislature, but governors, especially Republicans, have consistently strangled them.

In the waning months of his governorship, Arnold Schwarzenegger has decided to go on offense, embracing major changes in tort law as part of his economic stimulus package and saying he wants to short-circuit "frivolous lawsuits that kill jobs."

The proposals include tightening up on class-action lawsuits that can often generate big payouts to lawyers and their clients, restrictions on the size of punitive damages, and shielding sellers of defective goods from liability if they are "mere conduits of a product."

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