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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Lawsuits Spawn Safer Conditions in Home, Industry

Among the thousands of lawyers who have heard Professor Thomas F. Lambert Jr. speak, there are few who do not vividly remember his factual and oratorical eloquence in defense of the legal rights of consumers and workers injured be­cause of hazardous products and equipment. Lambert, an editor of trial lawyers publications at 20 Garden St., Cambridge, Mass., came to the Senate a few days ago to testify on the accident preventive impact of lawsuits against negligent manufacturers. (Lawyers call these cases product liability lawsuits.)

“A fence at the top of a cliff is better than an ambulance in the valley below,” was the way he started into a list of cases whose verdicts had led to greater care by industry.

GRIPPING STORIES of how the notorious rail­road turntable was made safe at the turn of the century or how the tip-over steam vaporizer was provided with an automatic shut off normally issue from Lambert’s prodigious memory, complete with legal citations. Before the Senate Commerce Committee, however, he was reduced to sum­maries such as:

“… successful medical negligence suits have induced hospitals and doctors to introduce such safety procedures as sponge counts, electrical grounding of anesthesia machines and the avoidance of colorless sterilizing solutions in spinal anesthesia agents.”

He showed how safer conditions followed successful lawsuits in such areas as re-cycling wash­ing machines, earth-moving machines and dangerous railroad crossings.

His central point — that product liability lawsuits are making firms more safety conscious — is confirmed by many company executives. The Department of Commerce’s interagency task force report on product liability contained a survey showing that more firms were utilizing programs oriented toward product safety.

BECAUSE OF THE growing success of products liability suits, the insurance industry has launched a wide-ranging propaganda and lobbying drive to get state legislatures and Congress to severely re­strict the legal rights of injured people.

By sharply raising premium rates in the last two years to manufacturers (up to 1000 per cent or more in increases), the insurance companies sell­ing this coverage have created allies. Stung by the premium hikes, large numbers of small manufac­turers are besieging state legislators with de­mands to restrict the judge-made law of products liability.

The dismal package devised by this insurance-industrial alliance includes 1. the ending of com­pensation for pain and suffering, 2. no more punitive damages, 3. making the statute of limita­tions for bringing a suit start from the date of product sale instead of the date of the injury, and 4. letting a company get off if it can show that the rest of the industry does the same thing.

In the midst of all this hysteria, the insurance industry still does not disclose how much it takes in premiums compared to what it pays out in compensation to the injured. Nor does the industry reveal how they arrive at raising a small manufac­turer’s premiums five or tenfold when there have­n’t been any claims, much less any verdicts, against that producer.

SMALL MANUFACTURERS would be well ad­vised to lock arms with consumer groups and move legislators toward an investigation of the insurance companies selling this product liability insurance. By letting themselves be stampeded by insurers into becoming vanguard lobbyists against consumer rights, these manufacturers will neither find their premiums reduced nor their public re­spect enhanced.

For as the Commerce Department report stated, there is no legal crisis in product liability warrant­ing such radically reactionary restrictions on the injured’s right to sue.

The efforts of the manufacturers, apart from making safe products with adequate instructions, should be directed at establishing their own public or private insurance companies if the existing insurers continue their shakedown and secrecy.