WASHINGTON—The Senate re-entered the battle for product liability reform by introducing a bill Jan. 22 identical to the one passed by both houses of Congress last May but killed in a presidential veto. The new legislation, the Product Liability Reform Act of 1997, was among the first 10 bills introduced in the 105th Congress, an unmistakable sign of its high priority.
Spokesmen for the rubber industry were still perusing the bill at presstime. At the time of the Clinton veto, however, an official of the Rubber Manufacturers Association called the legislation ``the best (product liability) program we've seen in years.''
The bill's provisions include a cap on punitive damages. It limits them to $250,000 or twice economic damages, whichever is larger (for major corporations) or smaller (for companies with fewer than 25 employees or individuals with a net worth of $500,000 or less).
Those limits are waived, however, if judges find the defendants guilty of ``egregious'' behavior in knowingly selling unsafe products or failing to warn consumers of potential dangers.
A 15-year statute of limitations is part of the bill; that means a consumer cannot sue after the 15th anniversary of the product's first sale. Also, the legislation eliminates joint-and-several liability, which forces one defendant in a lawsuit to pay all damages if other defendants can't pay their shares.
Product sellers are held liable for manufacturers' defects if the manufacturers can't be located or brought to court.
Manufacturers of raw materials used in medical devices have a complete defense against lawsuits if their materials did not contribute to the failure of a device. All manufacturers are exempt if they can prove a plaintiff's drinking, drug use or willful misuse of a product was mostly responsible for injuries.
Passage of the bill will benefit U.S. manufacturers and workers by lifting onerous legal threats and cutting legal costs, said Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., the legislation's chief sponsor.
Three years ago, Congress passed product liability reform for the small airplane business, Mr. Ashcroft said. Then, small airplanes were not being manufactured in the U.S.; today they are, and 9,000 Americans are employed in building them.
``(W)e want to extend the tort reform effect. . . a step further,'' he said.
The Product Liability Alliance (TPLA), a coalition of tort reform supporters, praised the Senate for placing high priority on the bill. ``(This is) a dramatic breakthrough that will clearly provide this issue with early attention and advocates with a unique opportunity to cross the finish line,'' said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the Executive Secretariat of TPLA.
Despite bipartisan support, the bill's chances of passage are uncertain at this point. The recent election may have reduced the number of product liability reform supporters in the Senate, and President Clinton still opposes caps on punitive damages.