A divided Senate voted Wednesday to limit punitive damage awards in all civil lawsuits, although the closeness of the vote left the proposal’s fate in doubt.
Voting 51 to 49, the Senate approved a proposal by Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., that vastly broadened a pending bill to curb product liability awards by extending the bill’s limits on punitive damages to all civil suits.
“Lawsuit abuse” forces Americans to pay what amounts to a “litigation tax” of $1,200 a year in increased consumer costs, “with nothing received in return,” Dole argued. His opponents, including some Republicans, countered that broad federal curbs on lawsuits would curtail individuals’ legal rights and undermine the GOP’s rallying cry that Washington “does not always know best,” as Sen. Fred D. Thompson, R-Tenn., put it.
In dueling horror stories, Thompson told about a Tennessee couple who collected $3 million after their 5-year-old daughter died because of medical errors during a tonsillectomy and urged him to fight to keep punitive damages as a deterrence to help prevent such tragedies. By contrast, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, told of a suit over car refinishing that resulted in a $2 million punitive damage award and challenged colleagues to “tell the American people that justice was done.”
The vote brought the Senate bill more in line with a measure approved by the House, although the House legislation remains far more sweeping in its impact, including limits on pain-and-suffering as well as punitive awards.
But the narrowness of Wednesday’s vote - and the slim margin by which the Senate extended the limits to medical malpractice cases - raised questions about whether the expanded bill could pick up the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster.
It also increased prospects that amendments adding to the scope of the legislation, including the Dole proposal, might have to be stripped out in order to bring the product liability bill to a final vote. “It’s what we’ve said all along - the more it’s loaded up, the more problematic this issue could become,” said Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D.
An initial vote to determine whether the expanded bill can get 60 votes is scheduled today. If the vote falls short, “we’ll have to look at adjustments,” said Majority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss.
In addition to approving Dole’s proposal, the Senate agreed by voice vote to put a $250,000 limit on punitive damages against individuals with net worth less than $500,000.