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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Product Liability Bill

Marlo Mahne from Florida has sent some U.S. Senators materials they would rather not see. Her letter to Senator Jay Rockefeller in mid-June was occasioned by the current Senate debate on S. 687 — a bill to federally regulate state juries and state judges in cases involving human harm from defective products.

Ms. Mahne correctly read S. 687 as being very biased against injured people and very favorable to the drug, aircraft, auto, chemical and other companies charged with serious wrongdoing that causes human casualties.

Then she described her experience: at the age of 15 she was a passenger in a Ford car that was struck at 40 mph and then burst into flames, horribly burning much of her face and body. Had S. 687 been law then, with the predictable later amendments, she would not have been able to obtain adequate compensation in court. The judge’s hands would have been tied by Washington in a variety of ways that impeded the role of local jury and judge.

Then came her before and after pictures. They were shown to two Senators who could not bear to look at the second one. This bill S. 687 is about a first step restriction on the rights of wronged victims to hold their perpetrators responsible. But not to its callous corporate backers who believe that taking away peoples’ basic rights is good for business and its profits.

For thirteen years the defendants’ lobby has been adjusting this legislation to increase its likelihood of passage. Former draconian provisions, such as blocking all lawsuits against products that met government standards, no matter how obsolete or weak, were shelved for later action. Dozens of political action committees wrote checks to grease the bill’s passage. Yet Congress resisted.

In the last two years, the defendants’ lobby, notwithstanding a veritable corporate crime wave, roped in more Senators with arguments so specious that they would be comical if they weren’t cruel.

Did you know, for example, that making it harder for you to bring corporate wrongdoers to justice, for the harm they cause innocent people, lessens our nation’s global competitiveness, its innovation rate and its job creation? Can you imagine what prosperity serfdom could bring under this type of psycho-madness?

Yet repeated again and again and garnished with campaign finance money and phony anecdotes and self-serving surveys long enough, and the virus begins to stick on Capitol Hill.

Each industry brings its Senators. Senators Chris Dodd and Joseph Lieberman, in thralldom to the giant insurance lobby of Connecticut and miscellaneous industries, heel clicked behind the notorious S. 687. It doesn’t seem to bother these Senators that people in Connecticut are injured by corporate negligence -­defective cars, harmful medicines, flammable fabrics etc. — like citizens of other States. Corporations come first. Senator Lieberman prefers to use the camouflage “small business.”

The facts are that less than one in ten product defect victims even files a legal claim. About 56,000 people a year receive any compensation. The total payout of verdicts and settlements in 1991 nationwide — state and federal courts -­amounted to about $2.5 billion or less than the country spends on cat food. Insurance premiums and self-insurance for product liability amount to less than what is spent on dog food.

This massive lobbying effort for S.687 is all about corporate dislike of disclosure of their internal research and test results, coverups and the like, and a deep aversion to the deterrent effect of these lawsuits. The kinds of deterrence that make companies change their ways of designing and producing products, exposes their top executives to adverse publicity and sometimes, as with the asbestos and Dalkon Shield manufacturers, leads to the removal of the top officials.