Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Product-Liability Bill A near Miss in Senate

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Product-Liability Bill A near Miss in Senate

Article excerpt

THE nation's manufacturers will have to "wait till next year" - or maybe longer - to win reforms designed to reduce the burden of product-liability lawsuits.

Last week supporters of a reform bill lost a key vote in the United States Senate by just two votes. With time running out before Congress closes shop for the year, the action effectively kills the legislation for this year.

The vote was not a rejection of the bill itself, but a failed attempt to prevent a filibuster. Fifty-eight senators voted to limit the debate. Sixty votes would have accomplished that, clearing the way for a vote on the bill.

"All we're trying to do is to let the majority ... speak," says William Fay, director of the Product Liability Coordinating Committee, the lobbying group set up by businesses to pursue the reforms. The Bush administration has made legal reforms a centerpiece of its economic agenda, arguing that frivolous lawsuits are a drag on the nation's businesses. What would Clinton do?

"We are in this for the long haul," says Mr. Fay, saying a majority in both houses of Congress supports the bill and expressing confidence that the legislation can pass in the next congressional session. But it is unclear what would happen if Democratic challenger Bill Clinton is elected president in November. In the past, Mr. Clinton has spoken out against similar measures, and many Democrats in Congress oppose the reforms, arguing they would weaken the ability of victims to sue corporations for damages. The Arkansas governor took no position on the Senate bill.

The bill would encourage litigants to try arbitration before going to court and would limit the "deep-pocket" rule, by which a company can be held liable for all damages, regardless of its share of guilt.

Just prior to last Thursday's vote, a consumer group released a study suggesting that the insurance premiums, lawyers' fees, and damage awards related to product-liability are far lower than the $100 billion figure cited by proponents of reform. …

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