Democrats block measure to limit product liability suits Senate bill would have shielded small businesses from crippling damages

July 10, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats blocked legislation yesterday that would have shielded small businesses from crippling product liability lawsuits, complaining that Republicans would not let them influence the bill even as GOP leaders were slipping in their own pet provisions.

At the heart of the dispute were Democratic efforts to attach to the legislation a measure expanding the rights of patients in managed care companies -- a provision that Republicans oppose.

Democrats were divided over the merits of the product liability bill, which would have restricted punitive damages in lawsuits over defective products and which had the grudging support of the White House. But they were unanimous in demanding the right to amend bills as they reach the Senate floor.

The Senate voted 51-47 to cut off debate on the product liability bill, nine votes short of the total needed to bring the measure to the floor for a vote on passage. All Democrats, including Maryland's two senators, voted with two Republicans to sustain the filibuster.

Restrictions on product liability lawsuits have become a top priority of the business community, which says big punitive damage awards threaten economic growth. But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, declared the bill dead for the year.

The Democrats "were totally playing games on this," Lott said. "If they want to be on the side of the suing plaintiff lawyers, we'll take the side of the American people."

The bill was a narrower version of a measure passed by Congress but vetoed by President Clinton two years ago.

It would have capped punitive damages at $250,000 -- but only for businesses with fewer than 25 employees or less than $5 million in annual sales. It also would have made it harder to prevail in product liability suits against any business.

Retailers would have been given protection against lawsuits aimed primarily at a manufacturer.

Business groups have been pushing liability protection for two decades, over the objections of consumer groups and trial lawyers.

This time, Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington and Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia had worked out a compromise with the White House that was intended to avoid a veto. But the compromise failed.

Backed by the powerful trial lawyers lobby, Senate Democrats opposed the bill, contending that it would deny consumers vital protection by barring them access to the courtroom.

"I don't believe the Senate serves people well by taking away rights they already have," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat.

Torricelli and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein had proposed an amendment to exempt gun manufacturers from liability protection.

Without such a provision, gun control advocates contended, the bill would protect firearms makers from lawsuits that could hold them accountable for gun violence.

Republican leaders had barred the broadest form of that amendment, though Democrats could have introduced a narrower form to exempt the smallest gun makers from liability caps.

On Wednesday, Lott attached a measure that would have benefited a large employer in his home state. The provision brought Baxter Healthcare, a manufacturer of medical equipment, under the liability protections reserved for small businesses.

Daschle said the Lott maneuver had turned the White House against the bill, even though Lott insisted that he had secured the assent of White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

Lott defended his action, saying Baxter and other manufacturers had threatened to suspend production of equipment such as kidney dialysis catheters, brain shunts and intravenous injection kits if they did not obtain relief from liability suits.

"What about the sick and injured children that need these biomaterials?" Lott said. The Democrats "obviously don't care."

The bill's supporters said it is unlikely to be brought up again before the November elections.

Pub Date: 7/10/98

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