THE WIDOW OF PIONEER ASTRONAUT Virgil I. Gus" Grissom is urging the survivors of the seven dead Challenger astronauts to sue the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the space contractors and the insurance companies. On the first anniversary of the disaster, an angry Betty Grissom said neither the contractors nor NASA "cares anything about" survivors of the Challenger astronauts. She knows, she said, because "They don't care about me, financially or morally."

Mrs. Grissom speaks with passionate authority. Col. Grissom and two other astronauts died in a launch pad fire Jan. 1, 1967 as they tested an Apollo capsule. Her bitter words are especially relevant now. Her lawyers say that if the insurance industry had had its say 19 years ago, Mrs. Grissom would have not have gotten a dime from North American Rockwell, the builders of the Apollo space craft. When she went to a lawyer four years after the fire, the statute of limitation had almost run its course. But because she chanced to walk into the lawyer's office, she managed to get $350,000 less the lawyer's fee - a pittance for her bleak years of widowhood.The insurance industry will be lobbying again this year to reform the tort liability system. The industry blames ambulance chasing trial lawyers and a civil justice system run amuck for the insurance crisis. It wants and says the public supports a cap on awards to people like Mrs. Grissom.

Mrs. Grissom speaks to the public with the authority of one from the heartland of patriotic small town America. The Grissoms were high school sweethearts in Mitchell, Ind. In memory of its most famous citizen, Mitchell has a Grissom High School, a Grissom Avenue and a Virgil I. Grissom cement plant, the largest employer in the town of 5,000 in southern Indiana.

There is a message for the insurance industry in Mrs. Grissom's angry memory. The trial lawyers who oppose the industry's tort reform campaign will attend to what she said. Just as certainly they will bring her words to the attention of state legislators.

The insurance industry is caught in a brutal dilemma. On the one hand, it projects an image of all encompassing care. "You are in good hands . . . I'm glad I metcha." On the other it faces what it sees as limitless liability for things hard to quantify, prominent among them pain and suffering.

It's hard to argue against emotion. But if the industry wants emotion eliminated from the courtroom, it might consider a more straightforward, less emotional appeal in its own sales approach.

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