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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > ‘Tort Reform’

Years ago, a venerable law professor described the developing law of personal injury as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” He was referring to the courts’ gradual recognition that in­jured people had rights to damages from companies whose unsafe products led to the injuries.

Ronald Reagan and his Cabinet members give every indication that they intend to reverse this humane trend.

Item: Testifying on Jan. 6 at his Senate con­firmation .hearing, industrialist Malcolm Baldrige, now secretary of commerce, declared that his department would support tort-reform legislation because personal-injury lawsuits against manufac­turers were a “very serious problem” and had a “dampening effect on new product development.”

“Tort reform” is a code word for reducing, through legislation, the rights and remedies of injured con­sumers and workers and rolling back the progress of the courts in this area over the past half-century.

In Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16, representatives of the Reagan transition team, Republican staffers from Congress and insurance company officials held a private meeting at the National Association of Manufacturers’ offices. The agenda was how to generate a drive for “tort reform” in Congress and the state legislatures.

The Reaganites are not subtle about the signals they are emitting–signals which spell cruelty and huge economic costs to the American people and delight to the major corporations.

At his Senate confirmation hearings, the new secretary of transportation, Drew Lewis, a wealthy Pennsylvania businessman, stated that the federal auto-safety program “may have reached a point of diminishing returns.” Overwhelming engineering and economic evidence, compiled by his own department and drawn from auto engineers within the industry, makes his statement nonsense. One hopes that this nonsense springs from the ignorance in the Reagan Department of Transportation transition team report, which he relied on for his comment, rather than from less charitable motivations.

Secretary Lewis should spend time studying the work of his own department. He would benefit, for instance, from reading the lengthy public letter that Carter’s auto-safety administrator, Joan Claybrook, recently sent to the heads of the auto companies listing simple life-saving advances in car safety that also would save motorists as well as the general public billions of dollars. With the growing number of smaller, more vulnerable cars now riding the high­ways, thousands more Americans will lose their lives or be injured every year unless what Claybrook called “many readily available remedies within the state of the art” are built into motor vehicles.

Meanwhile, at the Department of Agriculture, the contrast between the Carterites and the Reaganites also is sharp. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Foreman just completed a four-year record of strong advocacy for nutrition and food for hungry children and poor people. The new agriculture secretary, John Block, a wealthy agribusinessman, scoffs at the emphasis by his predecessor, Bob Bergland, on consumer protection and nutrition information.

Following his remark that he views his job as making more profits for the farm economy, Block said of the department’s new publication, “Ideas for Better Eating,” designed to inform people about proper dietary guidelines: “I have to say people are pretty good at figuring out what to eat and not to eat. I think people are going to balance their diets.” Block added that the pigs on his farm know how to balance their rations and not overeat. “People surely are smart as hogs,” he pointed out.

Later, Foreman observed that the department has spent such effort and money advising pork farmers how to feed hogs so they will gain weight. “I doubt (Block) intends to suggest the Department of Agriculture should do less for people than for big producers…or pigs,” she remarked.

Block might have been more sensitive to the abundant medical research showing links between imbalanced diets, heavy fat or salt intake and various diseases. The American people are entitled to have their government inform them about proper diets which can make them healthier. Certainly TV food ads do not.

Ronald Reagan campaigned against federal health and safety regulations. He used semantic tricks like “getting big government off your backs.” But what he really plans to do is call off the federal cops who are patrolling the business crime, negligence and rip-off beats. What’s more, judging by the statements of his Cabinet appointees, even the function of informing consumers will receive little respect in the new ad­ministration.