Product Liability Reform: Boondoggle or Boon? Backers of Reform Say Lawsuits Are Harming Businesses and Consumers; Opponents Say They Are the Only Way to Hold Manufacturers Accountable

By David Hipschman. David Hipschman, who lives in Montana, is a regular contributor to Global Network Navigator's WebReview. Mr. Hipschman welcomes e-mail comments to: dochip@cyberport. net. | The Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 1995 | Go to article overview

Product Liability Reform: Boondoggle or Boon? Backers of Reform Say Lawsuits Are Harming Businesses and Consumers; Opponents Say They Are the Only Way to Hold Manufacturers Accountable


David Hipschman. David Hipschman, who lives in Montana, is a regular contributor to Global Network Navigator's WebReview. Mr. Hipschman welcomes e-mail comments to: dochip@cyberport. net., The Christian Science Monitor


AMERICANS traditionally back the little guy. Think back to the Miracle Mets taking the World Series from Baltimore in 1969 and remember the fervor the "underdog" engenders.

This sentiment is especially strong if the "big guy" is a corporation that lies in the name of profit.

That's why I can't understand support for the "Product Liability Reform Bill" (S 565). It passed the House of Representatives and the Senate Commerce Committee. If passed by the Senate, it will reduce the redress available to each citizen and limit the ability to sue businesses -- even if the businesses do great harm.

Sadly, most of us don't understand product liability law and punitive damages. Punitive damages are not to compensate an injured party, but to punish wrongful actions that a jury decides were intentional or malicious. Punitive damages also deter wrongful conduct. So who wants this bill to become law? I'll tell you: the same kinds of companies that knowingly manufactured and sold cars with fuel tanks in the "crush zone," defective birth control devices, and the like.

This "reform" bill is nothing more than an attack on the jury system by corporations. A lobbying group, the National Association of Manufacturers, said the committee vote was a "strong step toward ... reforming America's legal system."

Funny thing about the people we keep electing. I don't remember asking them to reform America's legal system. I wonder which corporate lobbyists convinced "our" senators and representatives that "we" need reform?

Supporters of the bill argue that product liability and punitive-damage lawsuits are "antibusiness," and that without the legislation US companies can't compete with foreign firms.

Have I got this right? In some countries it's OK to manufacture dangerous things because you can get away with it. And some US businesses think we should "reform" our laws so they will be able to manufacture dangerous things too.

One of the myths used by supporters of the legislation is the "product liability crisis" that's snarling our courts with "frivilous" lawsuits. It just isn't so.

Product liability filings in federal court declined 36 percent between 1985 and 1991 (excluding asbestos cases). The vast majority of civil cases involve domestic relations, bankruptcies, or contracts. Let's look closely at Montana, one of the least populated states, and California, one of the most populated:

In Montana, civil cases claiming personal injury have declined 10. …

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