GOP Vows Legal Reform to Curb `Windfall' Awards Challenge Lies in Finding Balance between Frivolous, Merited Cases Series: REPUBLICAN ROAD MAP

Article excerpt

THE stories are a staple of outrage journalism: "Woman Gets $2.9 Million Over Spilled Coffee," "California Couple Gets $12 Million For Crack in Kitchen Floor."

Windfall jury awards that grab headlines by appearing to defy common sense have shaped the common perception that the United States legal system is a litigation machine gone haywire.

Republicans hope to inject a measure of "common sense" into the system which, according to one expert, adds $350 to the yearly cost of insuring every car in the nation. Big promise

As a part of their "Contract With America," House Republicans have promised to vote on legal reforms in the first 100 days of the new Congress.

But, while a poll commissioned by Republicans found 65-70 percent of Americans supporting legal reform, Congress' challenge is to realign the system so it filters out frivolous suits yet still compensates the injured.

Joan Claybrook, president of Ralph Nader's Washington-based Public Citizen, warns that the reforms are "a one-way street toward taking away individual rights," because "the current system is the only source of rebuke and punishment" for corporate misdeeds. In 1985, Marlo Mahne was riding in a 1967 Ford Mustang that was struck from behind. The car burst into flames and Ms. Mahne was disfigured and blinded in one eye.

Upon discovering that Ford Motor Company had allegedly refused to correct a design flaw that often caused fuel tanks to explode on impact, Mahne sued. Ford settled the suit for an undisclosed amount. Says Mahne, "I have a lot of money now, but I would rather be in the situation I was in before the accident."

Although legal reform bills have been floating around Congress for decades, Senate filibusters and strong House committee chairmen have blocked passage.

"One of the major obstacles to this legislation is gone: Jack Brooks is back in Texas," said a Republican staff member. Mr. Brooks, the former House Judiciary Committee chairman, was voted out on Nov. 8.

Opponents of reform remain optimistic, but one lobbyist, whose organization opposes the plan, admits, "its going to be tough, because we lost some of our friends in Congress."

In the quest for balance between frivolity and justice, one element of the Republican plan is the "loser-pays rule," under which the losing parties in federal court pay the attorneys' fees of the winners, thereby deterring weak or unfounded suits.

Critics warn that the prospect of paying a deep-pocketed corporation's legal bills would discourage most people from ever entering the court room, even if their case were strong. …