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SENATE VOTES TO CAP PRODUCT LIABILITY SUITS.

Byline: David Hess Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire

Despite a veto threat from President Clinton, the Senate approved a scaled-back bill Thursday to discourage big damage awards in cases involving defective products.

The bill, passed on a 59-40 vote, is the product of a 20-year effort by large and small businesses - including insurers and tobacco companies - to limit their exposure in product-liability lawsuits.

The long-running fight has pitted the nation's trial lawyers, who have generously supported Clinton's election campaigns, against big manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and makers of medical devices, who have shoveled money into congressional campaigns.

Consumer lobbies also have weighed in, complaining that the bill would set back efforts to ensure safer products in both market and workplaces.

On the final vote, 47 Republicans and 12 Democrats supported the bill, while 34 Democrats and six Republicans opposed it. The House is expected to pass the measure next week. As of now, supporters don't have the votes to override a Clinton veto.

The congressional debate also has drawn a sharp distinction between Clinton and his Republican rival for president, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

As one of the bill's staunchest supporters, Dole said Clinton was in the thrall of the trial lawyers.

"I'm not one to assume just because someone gives you money, they call the tune," said Dole, himself the recipient of vast campaign contributions from corporate political action committees. "But this message (from the trial lawyers) has apparently been heard down at the White House loud and clear."

The president, in explaining why he intended to veto the measure, said it would "prevent injured persons from recovering the full measure of their damages."

That assertion drew a quick rebuke from the Senate's chief sponsors of the bill, Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Republican Slade Gorton of Washington.

"It has no basis in fact," Rockefeller said in response to Clinton, insisting that juries still could return awards to injured persons that fully covered all their financial losses and also provide damages for pain and suffering.

The bill does, however, limit punitive damages to:

Either the greater of two times the sum of the compensatory damages (which consist of financial loss as well as pain and suffering) or $250,000 in cases involving big businesses.

Or the lesser of two times the sum of compensatory damages or $250,000 in cases involving small businesses.

Punitive damages are permitted in most states to punish corporate wrongdoing and deter future bad behavior. Clinton opposes caps on punitive damage awards.

The bill would permit higher punitive damage awards in particularly egregious instances of willful misconduct by defendants, although the standard of proof in such cases would be so high that such awards probably would be rare.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:460
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