HR 956: Product Liability

Republicans in Congress are in a struggle with President Clinton over H.R. 956, a bill to federalize and restrict the state-based legal rights accorded injured persons who take the perpetrators of their harm to court.

This legislation is by no means the full package that its business backers, including the insurance and tobacco industries, have been pressing Congress to enact for fifteen years. It is only the first installment with more immunities and limitations on liability for corporations, who produce defective products, to come later once this initial federal scaffolding is constructed.

The basic reason for President Clinton’s proper promise to veto this legislation is that the companies and their Congressional allies have not made the case for federal codification of how much, from whom, and when, harmed plaintiffs can recover — in ways entirely to the advantage of corporate defendants.

All the major studies, including two recent books by scholars at Duke and the American Bar Foundation, have contradicted the phony or distorted anecdotes that our civil justice system is out of control and favors injured plaintiffs. These studies demonstrate that judges are in control of their courtroom and that juries overall are quite responsible decision-makers. Should any jury go awry, it is countered by the trial and appellate judges.

Because there has been so much disinformation spread by corporate lobbyists in ads and on Capitol Hill, it is important to note these studies that assemble the most accurate data. The National Center for State Courts reports that the number of product liability suits have actually declined in recent years, despite the growth of the economy and population. They say that the fastest growing group of lawsuits are not consumer or workers against alleged business wrongdoers, but rather business against business litigation.

Other studies by the General Accounting Office, the Rand Institute of Civil Justice, the Harvard School of Public Health and the rigorous court data analyses by Professor Joel Rogers and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin demonstrate the falsity of business propaganda that a flood of frivolous lawsuits, anti-defendant juries and judges characterize our courts.

The public debate should really be about broadening access to judicial justice by the American people. Fully 9 out of 10 persons wrongfully injured by medical malpractice and hazardous products (like defective automobiles, flammable fabrics, toxic materials) do not even file a legal claim. It is very difficult to sue corporations, with their large resources and specialists, and prevail in court. Whether the defendants are hospitals, manufacturers or physicians, plaintiffs have an uphill fight.

The overwhelming evidence is that there is not enough justice in these legal areas to compensate innocent victims, to deter future unsafe practices and to disclose information for the general public about risks to be avoided. The American tort (wrongful injury) law system should be more expeditiously and less expensively usable to gain justice for plaintiffs and to make the marketplace, workplace and environment safer for everyone.

In all the blizzard of propaganda by the corporate defendants’ lobby, there is missing any quantitative data about how little really is transferred to plaintiffs, by way of both verdicts and settlements, in product defect cases. The best estimate, drawing on state Insurance Department data plus a self-insurance increment, is that in 1993, only $4.1 billion was received by all injured persons or their next of kin. That is not only less than the $6 billion that General Motors reported in profits last year. It is about what this country spent on dog food.

At a time when corporate influence controls so many legislators and blocks so many safety regulatory agencies from doing their job, it is not surprising that hundreds of consumer, labor, environmental and elderly groups are opposed to H.R. 956. They want responsibility for corporations to be decided by judge and jury, not by handcuffing legislation, greased by business political contributions, in Congress.

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