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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Product Liability

Our civil justice system is one of the great pillars of our democracy. The poorest and most vulnerable can challenge in court the largest corporation and hold it responsible for causing them harm.

Moreover, because of the impact of lawsuits brought by injured consumers, millions of Americans are less likely to be injured. Untold numbers of once dangerous products and practices have been subsequently made safer because of litigation: the Jeep CJ-5 (redesigned into the Wrangler); chainsaws now equipped with guards; toxic household chemicals now labeled with warnings; and fabrics used in children’s sleepwear now flame-retardant. Years of asbestos cases have led to new asbestos standards protecting all Americans and the phase out of other asbestos uses.

As the tobacco litigation so aptly demonstrates, tort actions also force disclosure of often extremely important internal corporate information about products: nicotine, other drugs, toxics and unsafe practices and processes. Millions of people, as a result, learn about have an opportunity to avoid these hazards.

The business lobbies are trying to push a bill through Congress now with the appalling cooperation of President Clinton, to subvert the ability of ordinary citizens to challenge corporate wrongdoers in court, undermining the authority of state judges and juries to decide civil cases.

This “federal product liability legislation” (S. 2236) would make it difficult or impossible for many consumers hurt by defective products, toxic chemicals, and other dangerous goods, to bring offenders to justice in court. Moreover, it will shift some of the cost of compensating injured Americans from corporate wrongdoers, who escape responsibility, to taxpayer-funded programs.

And, for the first time in U.S. history, it would impose a rigid national system of civil liability over all 50 states, taking judgment and authority away from local judges and juries who see, hear and evaluate the evidence.

This development is even more insidious when one considers the corporate dominance which already exists over our two other branches of government. Regulation of unsafe corporate practices in this country has virtually ground to halt. Corporate lobbyists, with their gross imbalance of advocacy resources and campaign cash, have weakened safety laws and safety standards for prevention of harm and protection against new technological hazards.

Yet the facts universally contradict industry’s fabricated claims that litigation has undermined their wealth and profitability.

In fact, all liability insurance (including worker’s compensation, property, auto, etc.) costs together for U.S. businesses have been declining significantly for four years, according to the annual survey of business insurance conducted by Tillinghast Towers Perrin and the Risk & Insurance Management Society. These total liability costs are minimal — only $5.70 for every $1000 in revenue in 1996.

There are also no data whatsoever that too many frivolous lawsuits are succeeding or even making their way before judges’. Americans already face major obstacles in pursuing legitimate claims in court. According to experts in this field, including the Rand Corporation (funded in part by insurance companies), far more wrongful injuries occur than ever reach lawyers. Only a tiny fraction of Americans injured by reckless or willful business behavior finally make it to the courtroom.

Consider those facts in light of how S. 2236 will diminish or demolish the rights of all consumers. Here are just a few of the provisions:

— The legislation will impose a nationwide cap on punitive damages cap for smaller corporations, as well as increase the burden for imposing punitive damages against all corporations. This will make it more difficult or impossible for injured consumers to hold responsible those corporations that commit the most criminogenic corporate misconduct.

— The bill would impose an 18-year nationwide statute of repose for workers, so that an injured worker could recover no medical costs, lost wages, or other compensation from the manufacturers of, for example, machine tools, elevators in the workplace or other factory equipment that is supposed to last more than 18 years. This would be the case no matter how dangerous or how many injuries these products have caused.

— The bill would virtually immunize corporations that supply the raw materials and component parts for medical devices that are implanted in your body, like pacemakers. This shield applies even

if the medical device results in injuries or death.

The facts mean little to the proponents of S. 2236 like Senators Christopher Dodd, Jay Rockefeller and Joseph Lieberman. Ask your Senators and Representative how, at a time of booming corporate profits, steadily declining liability costs, and evidence of product defects and toxic hazards so widespread, can they even contemplate restricting the already difficult pathway to justice that sick and injured Americans must travel?