Bill that would limit product liability awards protested

September 09, 1992|By Dina ElBoghdady and Dunstan McNichol | Dina ElBoghdady and Dunstan McNichol,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Tammy Callas of Laurel had her first run-in with product liability issues when she found that her Dow Corning breast implants were leaking chemicals into her body.

The leaks caused Mrs. Callas, a mother of two, to develop rheumatoid arthritis, an eye and mouth disease called Sjodren, a thyroid condition, muscle weakness and memory loss, she said. To combat the illnesses, she must undergo chemotherapy for the rest of her life.

"We had a lot of big plans and dreams," said Mrs. Callas' husband, George. "Now we have to start rethinking our lives."

Mr. and Mrs. Callas, who are currently suing Dow Corning, said they are worried about Tammy's medical expenses, especially since they had to close their eight-year-old antique shop when her condition deteriorated.

Adding to their worries is a measure, proposed by Sen. Robert Kasten, Jr., R-Wis., last week, that would limit circumstances under which manufacturers can be held liable for damage caused by their products. The bill also encourages out-of-court settlements.

Mr. Kasten said the measure would protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits, and help consumers by encouraging manufacturers to put advanced products on the market quickly.

But Mrs. Callas and other victims of faulty products gathered in Washington yesterday for a news conference, led by Ralph Nader, to protest the measure, which they say would make it more difficult for victims to pursue legal relief from the companies that caused their injuries.

Among other things, the law would preclude collecting damages:

* In cases where drug or alcohol intoxication was a prevalent factor in the episode that caused injury;

* In cases filed more than two years after a victim discovered or "should have discovered" the injury and its cause;

* In cases filed more than 25 years after a manufacturer has delivered a product to the site where it was used.

And, in what may be the law's most contentious provision, the legislation encourages victims to accept negotiated settlements by raising the possibility a victim who refuses a settlement offer might have to pay legal costs for the company he or she sued.

Specifically, the proposed law says that if a company offers a settlement and it is refused, the victim will have to pay the company's legal expenses if the award after trial is smaller than the proposed settlement.

"We'd be threatened to settle, if this bill passes," Mrs. Callas said. "If we don't settle, we risk exhausting our finances, losing our home and becoming a burden on the state of Maryland."

Mr. Nader accused Mr. Kasten, President Bush, Vice President Quayle and other politicians of "desensitizing" the American public by trumpeting "phony legal cases" and "distorting the factual content of their anecdotes" through the media, to the point of "institutionalized cruelty."

But Mr. Kasten last week called Mr. Nader's contentions "a carnival of lies, an impressive and colorful show that amounts to a disguise for an agenda that is seriously harmful to our national interest."

That agenda, Mr. Kasten claimed, is a campaign by lawyers to preserve a liability system through which they earn $10 billion annually.

"The estimated cost of product liability suits is equal to the combined profits of America's 200 biggest corporations," Mr. Kasten stated last week. "Our workers and consumers and job creators can't keep on paying America's huge lawyer bills."

But Mr. Nader and J. Robert Hunt, president of the National Insurance Consumers Organization, said that manufacturers greatly exaggerate the cost of lawsuits.

Mr. Nader and Mr. Hunt released a report yesterday, based on state insurance department forms, saying that of all claims closed in the decade, manufacturer's insurance companies paid nothing in over half of the cases.

As a percentage of product retail sales, product liability insurance premiums paid to U.S. insurance companies in 1991 cost only fourteen one-hundredths of one percent, the report said.

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