Landmark legislation long sought by business to curb class-action lawsuits was approved by the U.S. Congress on Feb. 17 and signed into law on Feb. 18 by President Bush.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Reuters) -- Landmark legislation long sought by business to curb class-action lawsuits was approved by the U.S. Congress on Feb. 17 and signed into law on Feb. 18 by President Bush.

The measure, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in a 279-149 vote, shifts most class-action lawsuits from state to federal courts, which historically have been less friendly to such cases.

Class-action cases allow plaintiffs to combine claims into one suit against a common defendant. Delighted Republicans said the bill reining in these cases was an historic advance in a broad agenda to overhaul the civil justice system.

Backers say class-action changes were needed to stop predatory trial lawyers from seeking out state courts willing to approve abusive settlements against out-of-state companies.

Opponents said clogged federal courts won't take many civil rights, consumer or environment cases filed under state laws, making it harder for citizens to hold companies to account.

The class-action measure authorizes federal courts to hear class-action suits involving over $5 million and involving persons or companies from different states.

It also cracks down on "coupon settlements" in which plaintiffs get little while their lawyers get big fees. It links lawyers' fees to the amount of coupons redeemed.

The law does not affect pending cases.

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