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Update from Capitol Hill.

I am constantly asked questions about developments in important legislative issues like products liability and medical "reform." negligence "reform." Here's an update.

You probably know that Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), John Danforth (R-Mo.), Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) have sponsored a bill they call the Product Liability Fairness Act. I certainly question the fairness part, and I am not the only one.

According to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, "We should not misunderstand the purpose of this bill. This bill is written clearly for the benefit of the business community." In 1991, then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) expressed the same view of that year's version of the bill. The current bill, reported out of the Commerce Committee last November, is almost identical to the 1991 proposal.

In 1991, Hollings and Gore recognized that "the primary effect of this or any other such measure would be to begin the federalization of product liability law. Once that process has begun, Congress will never hear the end of the clamor for additional changes in this law ...."

The senators also noted that "supporters of this bill are fond of implying that its only enemies are trial lawyers." But Gore and Housings recognized that the bill's opponents included "every major consumer organization, a wide range of health organizations, the American Bar Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Conference of State Supreme Court Justices." These groups also are opposed to the 1993 measure.

The bill's merits - or, rather, its lack of merits - have been argued for a long time. It has become clear that the proposal has only one "merit": It would benefit the business community. The bill would preempt state law that is inconsistent with any provisions of the act. Guess who that benefits?

According to the National Center for State Courts, less than I percent of the civil suits filed in state courts in 1991 were products cases. Despite all the corporate whining that products liability suits are clogging the courts, a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Rand Corp. shows that business litigation constitutes nearly half of all cases filed in federal courts. Ironically, those who complain about the litigation explosion" - namely, businesses - are the ones exploding litigation.

In the ultimate showing of gall, the corporate community suggests that the people should move aside so that businesses can continue suing each other. They argue for arbitration for individuals but want the courts for themselves. They argue for eliminating punitive damages for individuals, then seek them for themselves.

It is clear that there is no litigation explosion and that products lawsuits have nothing to do with competitiveness. Consumer organizations, health associations, and other groups who care about people oppose this legislation, as do consumers. In light of all this, it is hard to imagine how the bill's sponsors can consider themselves to be "of the people."

You might also be interested to know a few other things. A health care proposal by House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-III.) contains a "loser pays" provision. A health care reform bill introduced by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) limits non-economic damages, caps attorney fees at 10 percent for any award over $150,000, and has a "loser pays" provision that applies in certain circumstances.

In the Senate, John Chafee (R-R.I.) has introduced a bill that also would limit noneconomic damages and attorney fees. And the Senate version of the Cooper bill would establish a U.S. Commission on Malpractice Awards to promulgate caps on noneconomic and punitive damages.

Numerous consumer groups oppose these measures, all of which encroach on states' rights to determine their own tort laws.

Accompanying this issue of TRIAL is an enclosure that I hope you will read carefully and share with others. Call ATLA headquarters for more copies and distribute them. This booklet contains facts, not anecdotes, about medical negligence litigation and its effect on health care costs.

If you would like to know more about efforts in Congress to federalize tort law and about our efforts to fight back, contact your ATLA state delegate or state governor, or get in touch with the executive director of your state trial lawyer association. Go to your state meetings and find out what is really happening.

We are trying to keep you informed, but you need to want to be informed. It is your obligation as well as ours.

In Memory

On February 4, Leonard Ring passed away in his hometown of Chicago. Leonard was more than a past president of our association and a great lawyer. He stayed involved and committed to ATLA's principles.

I spent time with Leonard at our Winter Convention in January, played his "annual round of golf" with him, and talked. I had talked with him numerous times in the past few years. Those times are, unfortunately, gone.

He will be sorely missed, for he was a truly great human being.

Motor vehicles are everywhere these days. Breakdowns and collisions can be devastating, and the resulting lawsuits complex and technical. Up-to-date technology and old-fashioned hard work can help lawyers reach the desired destination - a verdict for the victim.

Utility vehicles look as mobile and rugged as mountain goats, but they are not always as surefooted. Some are narrow, with high centers of gravity, which can make them more likely to roll over. R. Ben Hogan and James Pratt suggest using computer simulations to show jurors how and why the vehicle crashed.

Most people, including lawyers, understand only vaguely how cars work and how mishandling or malfunctions cause wrecks. Larry Coben discusses how to investigate cases and gather evidence.

In a collision between a car and a tractor-trailer, the smaller vehicle and its occupants usually suffer the most damage. Thomas Malone describes how to use highway safety regulations to prove a defendant's negligence in truck collision cases.

Highways aren't the only conduits for freight and travelers; railroads crisscross the country Dale Haralson discusses federal preemption of state and common law in railroad-crossing collision cases. And Ben Saunders describes how to get an injured railroader ready to testify in a FELA case.

The law of the skies is mutable, like law on the ground. Stuart Starry examines an ambiguous phrase in a federal statute that he says has been misused to deprive air travelers of their common law right to safe transport. And Mark Goodrich provides a flight plan for suits involving helicopters - a growing segment of aviation litigation.

Travel and transport are central to contemporary fife. When collisions or equipment failure take their toll, lawyers can take the lead in protecting people who are injured.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:on tort reform bills
Author:Nace, Barry J.
Article Type:President's Page
Date:Mar 1, 1994
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