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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Bill Would damage Consumer Rights

The Senator dislikes trial lawyers. So this month, he, Larry Pressler, (R-South Dakota), helped vote out of the Senate Commerce Committee, S. 44, a bill that dislikes victims of hazardous products and chemicals. Another Senator, Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) says he doesn’t oppose victims’ rights; he just opposes the multiplicity of lawsuits. So he voted for 8.44 that same day, apparently unperturbed by the illogic of his position.
Others support S.44. About 600 corporations, belonging to two lobbies called the Product Liability Alliance and the Coalition for Uniform Product Liability Law are pouring campaign money and other persuasions into the offices of Senators. Many of these companies — drug and chemical manufacturers, auto and building materials (e.g. asbestos producers — are going for this federalization of state liability 1 WAS while their supporter Ronald Reagan (former states-righter) is still in the White House.

For decades, these corporations tried to stifle the personal injury rights and remedies of Americans in the courts and in the state legislatures. By their measure they failed. So they have come to Washington to obtain a massive one-stop injustice -‑ the largest federal pre-emption of state laws and judicial decision in modern times.

The bill is so loaded with special corporate bail-out provisions that one — the punitive damage destruction section — even embarrasses S.44’s chief sponsor, Senator Robert Kasten (R-WI), normally a man riot vulnerable to such shame. This section can be called the A.H. Robins Company amendment, introduced by Senator Paul Trible (R-VA), who also campaigned on a platform. A.H. Robins manufactured the notorious Dalkon Shield and is being sued by more than 9,000 women who have suffered serious injuries from this IUD device. Not satisfied with the section in the bill that eliminates strict liability for defectively designed products, the Richmond-based company wants only the first victim to be able to recover limited punitive damages. All the rest of the unfortunate people would then be denied such awards.

5.44’s “asbestos industry provision” prohibits courts from imposing strict liability on companies that -fail to warn exposed workers and consumers. This contraction, for example, would make it much more difficult for the tens of thousands of workers and their families suffering from asbestosis and cancer to prevail in court suits against the manufacturers.

The limitations in S.44, would have made it impossible for uries to arrive at punitive damage awards against Ford Motor Company and the location of its Pinto gas tanks. Moreover, compensatory damages would be difficult, due to the many defenses given reckless companies in various parts of this legislation.

It is not surprising, then, that companies like Eli Lilly (producer of the cancerous drug DES) and Dow Chemical, maker of agent orange , are enthusiastic backers of Senator Kasten’s legislation. What is less understandable is the switch of Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona) (remember Mr. local initiative), and Senators John Danforth (R.-Missouri) and Slade Gorton (R-Washington), who were once opposed, but now support the manufacturers’ position.

A proper opponent of 5.44, Senator Robert Packwood (R‑ Oregon), chairman of the Committee, told me that many Senators on the other side did not know the contents of the bill they backed. They think they are dealing plaintiff lawyers a defeat. Indeed, one Senator I spoke with told me an off-color joke about lawyers as if to punctuate this reason for his pro 5.44 position. None of the eleven Senators reporting this bill to the Senate floor showed any concern for the millions of victims of hazardous industrial products and practices who are the real targets of this legislation.

Now that S.44 is headed for the higher public visibility of an extended Senate debate, citizens back home can ask its sponsors: “Why, Senator, did you vote in Washington for a bi 11 that reduces long existing rights of people injured by hazardous products under our state laws?

In one or many ways, the court decisions of all fifty states over decades of trials, verdicts and judge’s opinions will be clipped or repealed by this federal legislation. And should this bill become law, arty future progressive court decisions will put into motion corporate-powered amendments in Congress to repeal them. Those traumatized and afflicted will no longer receive the relative impartiality of the courts, but instead will be sacrificed in Congress to the political influence and money of the perpetrators.

Some Reagan re-election advisors are advising him to keep a distance from 5.44. But Senators like Ernest Hollings (D-South Carolina), Howell Heflin (D-Alabama) and Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) are likely to make sure that example after example of dangerous company products will be described in any forthcoming Senate deliberation. As proxies for present and future victims their message will inform a wide American public.