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    Class-action suits: Oregon House votes to redirect unclaimed awards to legal aid

    SALEM — The House approved changes Monday in the way Oregon handles class-action lawsuits.

    In the session’s first major vote, lawmakers passed House Bill 2700, which would send unclaimed damage awards to the state’s legal aid services instead of back to the company that was sued.

    The bill passed in a near party-line vote, with Republican Reps. Julie Parrish of West Linn and Vic Gilliam of Silverton joining Democrats in voting yes.

    Democrats say the change would hold losing companies in class-action lawsuits accountable and ensure that victims are justly compensated.

    “I’m outraged that defendants who hurt Oregonians must keep that money,” Jennifer Williamson, a Portland Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, said in her floor speech.

    Republicans, however, disagree with a provision that would alter the way courts identify claim holders and how the law would apply to lawsuits already under way.

    “We should not replace a system that has served us well for decades with an untested new system unlike other states’,” said House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte.

    The proposed reforms were the subject of contentious debate in the 2014 legislative session. A similar bill passed the House but was derailed in the Senate when Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, sided with Republicans against the bill.

    That probably won’t be an issue this time, with Democrats having gained two more Senate seats in last November’s election. Class-action reform is one of a few big-ticket items — automatic voter registration and extending the clean-fuel standard are also on the list — that should sail into calmer waters this session.

    “When we heard this bill in the judiciary committee, it was Groundhog Day,” Williamson said. “By the end of today, I have a feeling it will feel like Groundhog Day again.”

    — Ian K. Kullgren

     

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