The Iowa legislature has approved a bill allowing its citizens to join the rest of the country in filing fraud claims directly against liable corporations, rather than having to feed their lawsuits through the Attorney General's office. The bill is expected to be signed by Gov. Chet Culver.
The bill, HF 712, passed on Monday by overwhelming margins — 95-1 in the House and 48-1 in the Senate.
Iowa is currently the only state that prohibits its citizens from filing lawsuits directly against companies. As a result, the Attorney General's office is straining under a pile of backlogged lawsuits. The current Attorney General, Democrat Tom Miller, has been championing the legislation for almost 20 years, until now without success.
Indeed, to deal with the 4,000 to 5,000 currently proposed suits, the state would need to hire between 40 and 50 new staff attorneys, which it simply can't afford to do.
Still, while the bill will be a welcome change to Iowa's archaic system, it is not without its flaws. Iowans still will need to seek approval from the Attorney General to file class action suits, and the bill will not apply retroactively. This means that suits which have already been filed will still need to be handled by Miller's office.
Additionally, going forward, the Attorney General will still be forced to sift through every proposed class action and decide if he wants to sign off on it.
More disturbingly, the bill includes exemptions preventing suits against banks, attorneys, insurance provides, doctors, cable companies, veterinarians, and architects. These are big areas in consumer law, and many deal with relationships involving undue influence and unfair business practices against vulnerable individuals.
Certain consumer groups are already voicing concerns about the final state of the bill. In a press release, the AARP noted their "concerns with the number or industries exempted and shielded from action," and singled out the insurance industry, a prime target of defrauded seniors.
Still, Swaim, who also voiced disappointment with the exemptions, told the Des Moines Register that the areas that draw the largest number of complaints — car repair, home remodeling, debt collection, and mortgage brokering — do not need to go through the Attorney Generals office. "No one's getting off scot-free," Swaim said.
Opponents claim the bill will lead to "frivolous lawsuits," which is absurd given the sweeping limitations still placed on consumers and the fact that Iowa is currently alone in prohibiting consumers from filing fraud suits at all.
As Miller put it in a press release, "We have worked on passing this measure for many years ... Today is a great day for Iowa consumers." And he will no doubt be glad to get some of that paperwork off his desk.