BUFFALO, N.Y. -- This year, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers are attempting to make changes to New York's consumer protection laws advocates say are woefully behind the rest of the country.
Mobilization for Justice Director of Litigation for Economic Justice Carolyn Coffey said one proposal to increase the minimum statutory damage per plaintiff from $50 to $1,000 is meant to hold businesses accountable.
"I think that we can all agree that that amount is pretty paltry. It doesn't really serve as any kind of deterrent and certainly isn't very robust," Coffey said.
However, Lawsuit Reform Alliance Executive Director Tom Stebbins said there are already lawyers who seek out speculative class action suits for a quick payday.
"This proposal would potentially make these kind of nuisance class action lawsuits that you hear about, there's not enough onions in my Funyuns or not enough strawberries in my Pop-Tarts, to go from a nuisance to a potentially catastrophic lawsuit," Stebbins said.
He said the increase would put businesses in a difficult position of deciding whether or not to settle potentially frivolous lawsuits because if they lose in court, it could be much more expensive.
"We've seen in many cases, judges are throwing these out but the more and more serious that they become, the greater threat they become, the more threat that they are to businesses and the more likely that businesses are going to just settle, raising the costs for everybody, rather than fighting these cases in court," Stebbins said.
Coffey said there are already institutional safeguards in the legal system including judicial elections and appeals. She also said these types of class action suits are only a small subset of consumer lawsuits.
"Even if they are frivolous, I certainly don't condone that but it's a small price to pay for enacting a law that will actually protect and help large numbers of New Yorkers," Coffey said.
She also pointed out both the state Legislature and the governor's proposals include making it mandatory prevailing plaintiffs recover attorneys fees, which she said should incentivize successful claims while naturally winnowing frivolous one.