Journal Record Staff Reporter
Product liability laws are biased against business, two local advocates for reform said this week. They lamented the recent failure in Congress of product liability legislation, but vowed to continue the cause.
Until about a week ago, supporters of U.S. Senate Bill 687 thought it would waltz through the Senate, said Fran Godchaux, director of the Small Business Department of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce Industry.
The legislation, sponsored by U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., and Slade Gorton, R-Wash., was aimed at reducing the high cost of liability insurance manufacturers pay, removing a major impediment to new product research and helping consumers by speeding up lawsuits.
Opponents said it would undercut an essential remedy for consumers who were grotesquely and permanently damaged by defective products.
Business interests failed on two consecutive days to get the necessary 60 votes to end a longtime filibuster of Senate 687.
"We're disappointed the trial attorneys and Ralph Nader's Public Citizen group were able to keep the filibuster," Godchaux said. "I am pleased to state that both Oklahoma U.S. Senators (David) Boren and (Don) Nickles were cosponsors of the bill, so they were certainly not in that group that was part of the filibuster."
Robert H. Alexander Jr., whose Oklahoma City law firm specializes in defense of manufacturers against plaintiffs' claims, said, "It would have made things better for manufacturers, because they wouldn't have been subjected to different standards in different states, so there would have been some uniform ability for them to manage their affairs."
Godchaux said there is a "mishmash of 50 state laws on product liability. This statute was important because a federal statute would have pre-empted many of the inconsistent state provisions that govern product liability for personal injuries. It could have saved businesses millions of dollars in court costs and injury compensation claims."
Alexander said manufacturers generally have a corporate headquarters, along with one or more plants that manufacture the product. "The product is usually found in every state, and a number of other countries as well," he said.
"The company has to hire lawyers in all those states to defend them in those situations. I defend some of my clients in a number of states, so I have a familiarity with the laws in other states."
Some of Alexander's clients are General Motors Corp., Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., Volvo/GM Heavy Truck Corp., Freightliner Corp., New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., Deere Co. and DuPont.
Godchaux said in most states, about 70 percent of all goods manufactured in the state are shipped elsewhere.
"The law that was proposed was not skewed toward manufacturers and against consumers, but the laws as they presently exist are skewed against manufacturers," Alexander said. "All an individual has to do is point to an alleged defect and the fact he was injured, and the fact that he caused the injury can't even be talked about, in most states."
With the torpedoing of Senate 687, federal product liability legislation probably won't be called up again until next year, Godchaux said. …