Liability reform is anti-consumer"The Common Sense...

April 13, 1996

Liability reform is anti-consumer

"The Common Sense Products Liability Legal Reform Act of 1996." Don't be fooled by its soothing name. This law will destroy consumer rights for the convenient protection of powerful business interests.

In its March 22 editorial The Sun, avoiding all effort to analyze the 70-page Act, summarily announced the proposed legislation "good for America" and necessary to end frivolous product liability suits. It then asserts President Clinton bowed to the power of trial lawyers when he threatened to veto the legislation. This wrong analysis does a disservice to those who have died, lost loved ones or sustained catastrophic and humiliating injuries at the hands of irresponsible corporations who put profit before safety.

Nothing in this legislation adresses the issue of frivolous lawsuits. Ironically, the primary provisions of the bill merely roll back access and reduce recoveries in the most meritorious cases. Punitive damages in all 50 states only arise when conduct already tortious is so outrageous that sanctions and deterrence become necessary.

The suggestion that trial lawyers bought the President is outrageous, since it fails to take into account the combined power and might of the corporate forces which oppose the handful of trial lawyers who speak on behalf of consumers. Who among us believes that attorneys who represent consumer victims can match financially or politically the combined power of the insurance industry and the manufacturing base of this country?

When President Clinton stands with consumers, he turns his back on corporate soft money contributions -- hundreds of times greater than that which trial lawyers could possibly muster. It is no wonder then that business PACs who favor the product liability bill contributed a whopping $23 million while the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and other attorney organizations spent approximately $2 million. It doesn't sound like President Clinton shrank from his responsibilities when threatening to veto. It sounds like the president stared down powerful and well-financed business interests for what he thought was right.

Why is the President taking such a courageous position? The pproposed bill inexplicably limits punitive damages for victims but does not limit punitive damages for corporations. For example, if an irresponsible company recklessly sells a defective product to another business, which injures workers and causes lost business profits, the "Common Sense Product Liability" bill permits the business to recover unlimited punitive damages but would cap or limit the injured workers' recovery. This perverse result highlights rather well who bought this legislation.

Further, by capping punitive damages the law would destroy its deterrent effect. Punitive damages are the only civil remedy available to deter reckless companies who knowingly place profit ahead of safety. Caping recoveries creates the opportunity for irresponsible businesses to calculate the cost of reasonable safety in relation to the harm. When the likely harm cost less than the safety precaution the change is less likely to be made.

The law also pre-empts state law and requires a two-year statute of limitations with a 15-year statute of repose for durable goods. If a product causes injury more than 15 years after manufacture and sale, consumers will simply have no recourse. Consumer products, furnaces, cribs and the like, will become time bombs set to explode at a time when redress will be unavailable. The thousands of workers and consumers who lost their lives to asbestos exposure would have been without remedy if this legislation had been law. The law shamefully abandons safety concerns for the profit motive.

The President Clinton may be trial lawyers' president but only because he is a consumer president. He should be commended rather than condemned for standing with consumers in the face of overwhelming and selfish corporate interest.

Laurence A. Marder Baltimore

Pub Date: 4/13/96

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