Lawyers, consumers victorious Product-liability bill fails to get nod for floor vote

September 11, 1992|By San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON -- The Association of Trial Lawyers of America, along with a number of consumer groups, scored a major Senate victory by narrowly defeating an attempt to move a product-liability reform bill toward a floor vote.

The Product Liability Fairness Act, the latest in more than a decade of such efforts, would have altered the rules governing lawsuits alleging product defects. One provision would have disallowed punitive damages for alleged product-caused injuries unless the manufacturer displayed a "conscious, flagrant indifference" to safety.

In three parliamentary votes lasting two hours yesterday, the bill won a majority in the final 58-to-38 count, but nonetheless fell two votes short of the two-thirds, or 60 votes, needed to end a filibuster.

Supporters vowed to try again next year and said that the closeness of the vote revealed "cracks in the dam" of the trial attorney lobby, one of the most powerful in Washington. Federal records list the group as one of the largest contributors to congressional campaigns, donating $2.1 million in the 15 months through last March.

The measure's defeat was especially noteworthy given its strong bipartisan support list, which includes such leading Democrats as Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Ohio's John Glenn and Michigan's Donald Riegle. California Republican John Seymour co-sponsored the bill, while Democrat Alan Cranston opposed it.

Earnest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, led the attack on the floor, defending trial attorneys and insisting that product liability suits are not a drain on the economy.

While the Bush administration supported the bill, many backers said they feared White House support could backfire by turning the bill into a campaign issue.

Pam Gilbert, a lobbyist with the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen, called the vote "a tremendous victory for the consumers of America, because the bill would have taken compensation out of the pockets of injured people."

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