Analysis: Big business the winner in U.S. Supreme Court class action cases

Thu Jun 20, 2013 9:05pm EDT
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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a series of rulings this year, the U.S. Supreme Court has steered a consistent course against consumers or small businesses that want to bring class action lawsuits against corporate defendants.

Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O: Quote), Whirlpool Corp (WHR.N: Quote) and Sears Holdings Corp's (SHLD.O: Quote) Sears Roebuck & Co are among the companies that have benefited from the court's rulings in recent months.

American Express Co (AXP.N: Quote) was the latest to benefit in a ruling on Thursday that marked the last Supreme Court class action ruling before the court's nine-month term ends next week.

Out of a total of seven class action-related cases that the court took action on, only once did a defendant lose. Amgen Inc (AMGN.O: Quote) lost in a case that experts say was limited to certain lawsuits involving shareholder claims against companies.

Class action lawsuits usually are driven by specialist plaintiffs' lawyers, who file claims on behalf of groups of consumers over such issues as defective products and unfair business practices. In the Whirlpool and Sears cases, which are ongoing, the claims concern defective front-loading washing machines.

If successful, lawyers can make millions of dollars in legal fees. Individual plaintiffs generally recover much less, but supporters of the practice say it can be the only way consumers can pursue grievances against deep-pocketed companies.

The rulings over the current term often have shown the court to be divided along ideological lines and on occasion have prompted vociferous dissent from liberal members of the bench.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of the liberals, expressed her concerns about the trend on Thursday when the court ruled on a 5-3 vote in favor of American Express, saying that, in effect, the conservative majority doesn't ever see a class action case it likes.   Continued...