Common Sense Legal Reform?

Article excerpt

"Loser pays" laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation.

- Item 9, Contract With America

Compared with crime, term limits, Social Security, welfare reform or other hot-button items on the Republicans' fast-track agenda, the "Common Sense Legal Reform Act" may appear pretty tame. To business owners and executives, though, it is long-sought relief from what they consider to be nuisance lawsuits that seek unreasonable damages for usually innocent, unintentional problems.

To the extent that such suits clog up court dockets, making it difficult for criminal cases and more pressing civil matters to come to trial, reforms are needed. The tools it proposes, however, such as caps on punitive damages and reduced liability for those who unwittingly sell faulty merchandise, could tilt the scales too far away from Americans who have every right to expect legal protection.

Tort reform - legal shorthand for changes in how damage suits are handled - can make strange adversaries. Take Ralph Nader and George McGovern, for example. The former Democratic presidential nominee became the owner of a hotel that went bankrupt, in part because of injury suits filed against it. Since that experience, he has called for changes similar to those championed by the Republicans, "to stem the endless tide of litigation."

Mr. Nader's consumer advocacy puts him on the other side. He worries that the kind of reform sought by the GOP would remove legal safeguards needed for those who were victims of shoddily built products. …