Y2K no excuse for legal disaster

April 30, 1999|By Robert Reno

IF A new technology in fuel injection caused thousands of cars to catch fire, incinerating their occupants, no sane person would suggest it's the business of Congress to suddenly limit the liability of auto manufacturers that make defective products.

And, not to be too simplistic, if a hurricane of unprecedented magnitude were bearing down on a densely populated sector of the Eastern seaboard, it would hardly be time for Congress to be legislating limits to the exposure of underwriters of windstorm protection.

The Y2K problem, if you listen to the worst scenarios, is such a disaster about to happen, causing as much as $1 trillion in losses for businesses, institutions and individuals worldwide. This would hardly seem to be the time to talk about mucking about with their established right to sue people who sold them the stuff that will turn to junk on New Year's Eve.

The courts and the tort laws they administer are an unwritten insurance policy covering everybody who might be wronged, cheated or sold defective goods. Is this a time to be canceling this policy or restricting its coverage? And what's the reason to be giving tort relief to a single class of defendants?

With a straight face, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, this week debated his bill that would make it difficult to file Y2K-related damage suits even as Sen. Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, in rare good form, was roaring his disapproval. The bill suffered withering fire from Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, who said it would create a system of "roadblocks" and "dead ends" that few aggrieved small businesses could survive without "driving a Humvee through the legal system."

Mr. McCain's bill is in the nature of a paranoid response to a paranoid response. A Y2K disaster that has yet to happen and may never happen is being cited as a reason to head off a litigation explosion that hasn't yet happened and will never happen if potential defendants use the remainder of this year to fix the defective stuff they manufactured, sold or purchased.

Some of the hysteria being marketed by the Y2K alarmists is pretty scary: Grocery stores closed when their cash registers freeze. Banks paralyzed, unable to honor drafts. A Pentagon computer, told it is 1900, spews out orders for tons of oats and fodder to feed the Army's mules and horses, and cancels critical contracts for weapons unknown at the turn of the last century.

"The judicial system will be overrun and the nation's economy will be thrown into turmoil," said Mr. McCain, unable to contain his appetite for alarm. Even if you believe the worst of this nonsense, you'd feel better knowing that the normal protection against torts was in place, that the victims of such a ghastly mess will have as much chance of redress as somebody who gets run over by a truck or conked by a falling brick.

Yes, the tort system of adjudicating claims is costly, immensely profitable to trial lawyers and occasionally subject to abuse by overly generous petit jurors. But without it, we take a giant step backward to the law of the jungle.

It is the part of the rule of law we so often prescribe as essential to the commercial development of nations that do not have it.

Robert Reno is a Newsday columnist.

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