Product-Liability System under Congressional Debate
Mark Trumbull, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
UNITED States manufacturers have been lobbying Congress for 13 years to reform a product-liability system they say encourages frivolous lawsuits.
Now a bill to modify the ground rules for these lawsuits has finally reached the Senate floor.
Product-liability lawsuits generate more than $100 billion a year in legal costs and judgments. Even when companies win, they lose by paying the huge costs of defense and higher insurance premiums.
Supporters of the current bill say a majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate would vote for the reforms.
But passage by Congress remains far from certain.
The reforms are opposed by some of the most powerful lobbies in Washington - trial lawyers, consumer groups, and elderly Americans. These groups say the bill would weaken a system that has protected thousands of victims of defective products such as the Ford Pinto and A. H. Robins' Dalkon Shield birth-control device.
The debate has been energized by election-year politicking.
When accepting the Republican presidential nomination, President Bush pledged to climb "into the ring" against trial lawyers "to put an end to crazy lawsuits."
Probusiness publications such as Forbes Magazine and the Wall Street Journal have added to the partisan tone of the debate, citing the financial support of trial lawyers for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Governor Clinton has not come out for or against the Senate bill.
Advocates of the bill say it is designed to win bipartisan support, unlike the more radical measures proposed by the White House's Competitiveness Council.
The Senate's Democratic leadership, which controls scheduling, opposes the reforms. Therefore, it is unclear whether the Senate will even get to vote on the bill. It cannot be debated unless 60 of the 100 senators vote to proceed. That vote, which both sides say will be close, is expected for Thursday, Sept. 10.
The bill would:
Be the first federal law. Currently product liability cases are tried under state law. All 50 governors last year signed a resolution calling for uniform federal standards.
Contain time limitations. Product victims would have two years to file a lawsuit once they are aware of the cause of harm. Also, lawsuits involving workplace equipment could be filed only if the machine is less than 25 years old.
Encourage out-of-court settlements. If one side rejects a settlement offer and then fails to win a better deal in court, that side could be asked to pay some of the other side's legal costs.
Proponents argue that this would help deter "frivolous" suits. Opponents say it would cause victims to settle for less than they deserve.
Encourage arbitration. A similar incentive discourages litigants from refusing an offer to try arbitration before going to court. …