Europe's drift into US-style collective actions in pursuit of damages for injury or loss through faulty goods or services has come under fire from a prominent Midlands-based product liability lawyer.
Paul Llewellyn, who heads Reed Smith's UK product liability team, says Europe risks a litigation culture unless it acts now to prevent "class action creep".
EU states are slowly yield-ing to a "crusade" by an influential group of international lawyers keen to export America's legal system, he claims.
They are being seduced by the belief class actions common in the US - under which one or more people sue in their own right on behalf of an unspecified number of other people who may have a claim against a corporate defendant - make justice more freely available, says Mr Llewellyn.
Under the American system, where juries fix damages, the sums can be enormous because juries have the power to award punitive damages of millions of dollars which bear no relationship to the damage sustained.
Mr Llewellyn says he is "bemused" EU member states should even consider a system based on the American model.
Nevertheless, many EU members seem to be moving in that direction, he warns. Although no formal proposals exist to introduce class actions in the UK, policy makers have toyed with the idea, and the EU Commission has advocated pan-European class actions in specific areas.
Mr Llewellyn fears Europe is blundering into a system that might appear to offer greater justice, but which triggered a "disastrous and extraordinary growth" in litigation in the States when introduced in the 1960s.
Certain countries, such as Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands already have class actions.
Others, including Italy, have legislative proposals before Parliament and, in an ironic twist, President Chirac proposed US-style class actions in France in the same month President Bush signed the Class Actions Fairness Act to curtail class action abuses.
Mr Llewellyn is concerned countries which now only permit collective action by a consumer body, or similar organisation such as a trade union, will remove this requirement.
The outcome could be massive law suits initiated by claimant lawyers who see an opportunity to earn huge fees, and "trawl" for individuals to front-up an action, rather than responding to public concern.
Mr Llewellyn said: "In Europe there are many factors which prevent the worst excesses of US class actions. For example we have no juries in civil cases, no punitive damages, and no contingency fees.
"The requirement the loser pays the winner's costs also acts as a deterrent. I fear the erosion of these protections. Claimant lawyers are advocating contingency fees in the UK, and the EU Commission is contemplating punitive damages in anti-trust cases. Once punitive damages are allowed in one sphere it is possible they will be introduced in others."
Mr Llewellyn added: "The whole climate of debate and discussion is being transformed from an environment where the consensus was class actions or other forms of coll ective procedure were unwanted and unwarranted, to a situation where they are seen as the benign harbinger of greater access to justice."
He says he regrets policy makers seem so committed to collective procedures little can be done to prevent "not only ill-considered national legislation, but a pan-European procedure".