Robert Herrell is executive director of the Consumer Federation of California (CFC), a statewide non-profit that has been advocating for consumer rights since 1960.
It’s a “tale as old as time,” as Beauty and the Beast aptly stated, albeit in a wildly different context. From robber baron monopolists bribing politicians in the 1890s to Big Tobacco suppressing scientific studies about their deadly products to today’s Big Oil companies pushing for immunity from climate crisis liability, deep-pocketed corporate interests regularly spend big money attempting to undermine consumer rights. Far too often, the tale ends the same way: powerful corporations get more powerful, and consumers – including everyday Californians – pay the price.
The latest version of this tale is being attempted here in California by a shadowy class of donors behind an organization called the “Civil Justice Association of California,” or CJAC. This badly misnamed organization represents a lobbying “who’s who” of billion-dollar, multinational corporations focused on restricting – not protecting – consumers’ access to civil justice. Founded in 1979, CJAC works to thwart efforts to hold their powerful corporate membership liable for wrongdoing, and they are gearing up to launch three expensive California ballot propositions in 2022.
But Californians have a right to know who exactly is behind their legislative and ballot efforts to water down the rights of consumers to pursue justice against corporations who harm them. A quick visit to CJAC’s website won’t yield a single byte of information about the companies and other entities behind CJAC. We were thrilled, however, to see the efforts of the Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC) to inform the public through a new website called “Unmasking CJAC” that finally brings this mysterious organization out of the shadows.
The site is the product of an investigation of financial filings culled from the California Secretary of State’s website and IRS forms. This has revealed the CJAC’s board to include representatives from the Koch brothers’ Koch Companies, Big Oil’s ExxonMobil and Chevron, Wall Street’s Wells Fargo Bank, and Big Pharma’s GlaxoSmithKline, among others. It also exposes additional donors to CJAC’s political action committee and other funding sources, including Monsanto, Big Tobacco’s Altria (previously Phillip Morris), and telecommunications giant AT&T.
CJAC’s most recent attempts to weaken fundamental protections for California workers and consumers proved unpopular. In 2018, the CJAC-sponsored AB 3050 (Flora) aimed to make it harder to file a claim against public entities whose negligence results in injury or death. That same year, they also sponsored AB 2793 (Kiley) to weaken the legal rights of asbestos victims. Fortunately all failed, but their endless supply of money and power haven’t stopped them trying again.
For their next attempts, the big businesses funding CJAC seek to use 2022 ballot propositions to cap contingency fees, which are fees a lawyer receives only if the case is won. These are often the only way many seniors, women, people of color and children with limited personal resources can afford to retain legal representation against defendants with bottomless resources to spend on litigation. By capping contingency fees, this will restrict access for many victims of corporate wrongdoing to secure high-quality legal services.
Plus naturally while limiting opportunities for victims to mount their case, the proposition would place no limits on what corporate behemoths can spend to deny consumers justice in the marketplace.
Attempts to roll back contingency fees are not new in California. In 1988, some of CJAC’s most significant backers put three contingency fee initiatives on the same ballot: Propositions 101, 104, and 106. Each one would have slashed existing contingency fee caps significantly, in some cases by more than half. These failed, as did the related Proposition 202 in 1996. That proposition would have capped contingency fees at 15%, regardless of the settlement or damages awarded to the plaintiff. That one failed, but with just 51.2% of voters defeating the attempt. And now CJAC is trying again in 2022.
So it is indeed a “tale as old as time” of big corporations seeking to aggressively limit consumer rights. The next chapter in CJAC’s story remains largely unwritten. Californians can help close the book on this brazen effort by continuing to expose CJAC for who they really are and help stop this attack on consumer access to justice by signing their name to “stand up for justice” at UnmaskingCJAC.com.