PRODUCT LIABILITY BILL STIRS ANGER AT HEARING

PRODUCT LIABILITY BILL STIRS ANGER AT HEARING

Product liability legislation, which stirred up a storm at a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, again faces an uncertain future in Congress.

Capitol Hill insiders say that the legislation, which would reform the legal system by restricting the amount of money parties injured by products can collect for non-economic damages, has a good chance of Senate passage but faces much tougher opposition in the House.But the bitter dispute at the Senate hearing prompted one senator to charge that consumer groups were resorting to "outrageous" tactics in an effort to impede Senate action. The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Robert Kasten, R-Wis. has 29 co-sponsors.

It is aimed, for example, at cases in which a product two companies manufacture is determined to have caused an accident and in which a jury makes awards to the victim for both lost wages and non-economic damages like mental duress.

In cases where one of the companies cannot pay its share of the award, most states use the "deep-pocket" theory and make the other, solvent party responsible for all of both awards.

Sen. Kasten's bill would not change this for economic damages such as the replacement of income. The solvent company would still be liable for all of the lost wages but only responsible for its share of non-economic damages, such as the mental duress.

The current system "provides a disincentive for the development of new and better products, while forcing the consumer to pay higher cost," said Sen. Kasten at the Senate Commerce Committee's Consumer Subcommittee hearing last week.

"Only the lawyers from both sides gain, with the total transaction costs eating up 67 cents or more of each dollar," Sen. Kasten added.

Despite opposition from Senate Commerce Chairman, Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., on record as saying that trial lawyers are not the principal beneficiaries of product liability lawsuits, the bill is expected to pass the Senate with at least 70 votes, according to Sen. Kasten.

But the measure is in trouble in the House, congressional aides say,

because it must be first heard by the House Judiciary Committee and product liability reform is not high on the committee's agenda.

At the Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday, consumer groups launched what several the senators called a "sneak attack" in an effort to impugn their characters.

"This is typical of (Ralph) Nadar organizations . . . to trash anyone who stands in their way," said Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo.

The dispute began when Linda Lipsen, a lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America, submitted testimony attacking Monsanto Corp. less than 24 hours before the hearing. Testimony is usually required a couple days before hearings are scheduled so that members can prepare questions.

When asked by Sen. Danforth why she didn't submit it with her original testimony on Tuesday, Ms. Lipsen said she didn't want to accuse anyone of any wrongdoing before she had all the facts.

Her veracity was questioned by Sen. Kasten who pointed out that he and other supporters of the bill were notified by reporters that they were given damaging information about Monsanto on Sunday.

The senator demanded to know why Ms. Lipsen wished to persecute the sponsors of the bill and Monsanto Corp. before they had time to defend themselves against such grave accusations.

The consumer activist had accused Monsanto of marketing an asbestos replacement judged unsafe in one set of tests. Sen. Danforth said independent scientists have rejected the original tests in favor of a second set of

examinations that proved the product safe. Monsanto has still not marketed the product.

The debate grew even more heated when senators demanded to know how much of consumer advocate Ralph Nader's budget was financed by trial attorneys. Dr. Sidney M. Wolfe, director of a consumer public health group responded that he didn't know because "a number of people have contributed anonymously."