Here is a story of two Senators and a President at work. Multimillionaires Ronald Reagan and Senator John Danforth (R-MO) are upset at the verdicts and settlements which a few adults and children, badly injured by defective products and toxic chemicals, have been winning in lawsuits against corporations. Joining them in this worry is Senator Robert Kasten (R-WI) who introduced Reagan’s bill which, among other depressants, seeks to limit state and federal juries from awarding victims, such as quadriplegics, more than $100,000 for pain and suffering over a lifetime.
Danforth, who is Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has been trying to get through other limitations on the right of injured people to have their day in court against the perpetrators of their harm. The corporate defendants’ lobby is arm in arm with him, Kasten and Reagan.
It is fair to assume that these gentlemen are concerned about the amount of money which affluent insurance companies are paying out to victims in what are called “product-liability” cases involving defectively constructed autos, hazardous drugs and other injurious materials sold in the marketplace or contaminating consumers. It is thereby fair to presume that they have some idea of how much is paid out annually in product liability awards and settlements. After all, the insurance companies are factories of statistics.
Well, it was not surprising that the master of distorted and unrepresentative anecdotes — Ronald Reagan — delivered his classically cruel speech on May 30th that joined him with the defendants’ lobby without a single reference to the dollar size of the problem which troubles him so.
Perhaps, he is too busy thinking about Star Wars, but, surely, the two Senators, Danforth and Kasten, have to be more immersed in their subject. After all, would the taking away of judicial rights of victims in important areas even be conceivable without data regarding the horrendous dimensions of the alleged crisis?
So I called up the two Senators and asked them one simple question: how much have victims received in product liability cases from jury awards and settlements in recent years?
Senator Danforth replied: “I don’t know.” “But he would be happy to consider any statistics.”
Senator Kasten replied: “I have no idea” He added that the general trend in verdicts and settlements is up.
There you have it. Two Senators and a President pushing to tie up state judges and juries without basing their radical measures on any dollar data about the size of the problem. Moreover, they did not believe it necessary to demand this information from the insurance industry which refuses to disclose it to the press or health groups.
Let me offer an estimate, based on piecing some data about large verdicts and other statistics together. I doubt whether all product liability verdicts and settlements in 1985 or 1984 exceed an annual level of $1.5 to $2 billion a year. The mass asbestos litigation, involving tens of thousands of workers and relatives, may raise this figure once it is resolved. But none of the three men would deny the validity of these claims.
The sum of the product liability dollar transferred to cancer victims and other afflicted Americans nationwide last year amounted to less than half the post-tax profits of General Motors. It is less than half of what Reagan wants this year for the wild and improbable Star Wars program. It is less than 2 percent of the annual subsidies given corporations in this country by the Reagan regime. But then the President has always been more tolerant of taxpayer aid to dependent (though profitable) corporations than he is of jury awards to suffering infants, disabled teenagers or sick workers.
Legislating in the dark is an adjunct to dealing in the dark on Capitol Hill. The people become the sunlight whenever they choose to rise. You can still put a stamp on a letter to your Senator; the Post Office is very good at delivering mail to the Congress.