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Gov. Brown vows to amend chemical disclosure law

Alicia Chang, Associated Press

FILE - In this on June 14, 2006 file photo, Eric Andresen, whose company manages apartments in San Francisco, poses beside a Proposition 65 warning sign at his San Francisco office on June 14, 2006. Andresen felt the sting of a Proposition 65 lawsuit when his company shelled out settlement fees to a Costa Mesa, Calif., attorney who has filed many Proposition 65 suits against apartment owners. Gov. Brown's administration said May 7, 2013, it wants to make changes to Prop 65, passed by voters three decades ago requiring business to post warnings of dangerous chemicals. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)-

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Seeking to crack down on lawsuit abuse, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday proposed to revamp a decades-old law requiring businesses to post public warnings of chemicals.

Proposition 65, passed by voters in 1986, mandates that store owners alert consumers of the presence of potentially dangerous chemicals in their products or on their properties, however minute.

The law, which led to disclosure signs hanging in coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses around the state, has been credited with reducing lead content in glassware and other products and educating the public about chemicals that can cause cancer or reproductive harm.

But the Brown administration said it has also led to frivolous lawsuits and small-businesses shakedowns.

"It's not an unqualified success," California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matthew Rodriquez said of the law.

The governor's office proposed several changes to curb excessive lawsuits, including capping attorney's fees and requiring more proof from plaintiffs that a business violated the law. The state also wants signage to provide more information about the specific chemical the public is being exposed to and wants the authority to adjust threshold levels of substances it deems toxic.

"Proposition 65 is a good law that's helped many people, but it's being abused by unscrupulous lawyers," Brown, a former state attorney general, said in a statement. "This is an effort to improve the law so it can do what it was intended to do — protect Californians from harmful chemicals."

Brown's stance puts it in line with recent efforts by the state Legislature to amend Proposition 65. Earlier this year, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, introduced a bill that sought to deter frivolous lawsuits. Any change to Proposition 65 would require a two-thirds vote.

The list of chemicals that must be disclosed has grown to about 800 and includes common products such as aspirin, gasoline and acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical in potato chips and French fries.

In 2011, $16 million was paid out in settlements for Proposition 65 actions, including nearly $12 million in attorney's fees.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which has pushed for Proposition 65 reform, said Brown's support should help propel the issue along in the state Legislature.

Brown is "sending a clear signal that these abusive lawsuits need to end," said the group's executive director Tom Scott.

Consumer Attorneys of California said it is aware of "a few" lawyers who have exploited the law and has worked with Gatto's office on legislation to weed out bad practices.

The group will review Brown's proposed changes and "find a solution that will stop those abusive lawyers while ensuring that Prop 65 remains a viable statute to protect all Californians," president Brian Kabateck said.