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Environment & Science

Brown, Cal EPA back reforms to cut 'shakedown' lawsuits filed under Prop. 65

A sign posted at a Sacramento apartment complex warns of harmful chemicals on the premises, as required by Prop. 65.
A sign posted at a Sacramento apartment complex warns of harmful chemicals on the premises, as required by Prop. 65.

Gov. Jerry Brown has directed the state’s Environmental Protection Agency to work towards reforming Proposition 65, a law passed a quarter-century ago that aims to protect Californians from harmful chemicals.

California EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez says the reforms will combat “shakedown” lawsuits. Proposition 65 enables private lawyers to bring claims against businesses that knowingly expose the public to toxic chemicals identified under state law.  Lawyers have filed such claims more than 2000 times since 2008; critics say in some cases the suits are motivated by a desire to make a quick buck, rather than address a public health threat. 

According to Rodriquez, the governor might want to impose a cap on lawyer’s fees in such cases. The governor’s office says state officials, lawmakers, and business interests also will discuss requiring more proof from plaintiffs before lawsuits can go forward, as well as limits on how much money businesses found liable would pay into a settlement fund in lieu of penalties.

The governor’s announcement was welcomed by tort reform groups, including the nonpartisan Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

Voters approved Prop. 65 in 1986. Any changes would require the support of two-thirds of the state’s Legislature, and would need to align with the intent of the original proposition to pass legal muster.

Rodriquez says state officials will seek support from likeminded lawmakers, such as state Assemblyman Mike Gatto. Gatto, who represents Burbank, Glendale, La Crescenta, parts of the San Fernando Valley, and Los Feliz, has sponsored a Prop 65 reform bill that would limit a business’s exposure to fines if it corrects problems promptly. Gatto says his interest in the issue was spurred by a constituent, a small business owner troubled by the way the law works now. 

Neither Rodriquez nor the governor has identified lawmakers who support this newly-announced package of reforms. State Senator Ted Lieu tweeted a commendation to the governor for proposing to reform “a great law that has been terribly abused."