Nation/World

Dole Seeks Deal On Lawsuit Limits Special Cap On Punitive Damages About All That Remains Of Original Bill

Senate Republicans proposed a stripped-down compromise Friday after their failure to get a final vote on far-reaching legislation to overhaul the civil legal system.

The GOP failed in two successive votes Thursday to cut off debate on the legislation, which would limit punitive damage awards in all civil lawsuits and establish a nationwide system of liability laws. They wound up 13 votes short of the 60 they needed.

The compromise was proposed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, whose amendment to limit punitive damages in all civil litigation greatly broadened the original product-liability bill, and by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga. A vote was planned for Monday or Tuesday.

President Clinton threatened Thursday to veto the expanded legislation.

“The reality is that we cannot bring this debate to a close without bipartisan support,” Dole said on the Senate floor. “Reform won’t happen unless the Democrats put the interests of the American people ahead of the interests of the trial lawyers.”

Spokesmen for Sens. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., authors of the original product-liability bill, didn’t immediately return telephone calls seeking comment. Some senators, supported by business, have been pushing proposals to revamp faulty-product laws for 13 years, contending they are needed to stem a tide of frivolous litigation.

Consumers and trial lawyers have opposed the proposals, saying they would deprive consumers of their legal redress against corporations and would usurp states’ rights.

On the 10th day of Senate debate, the bill’s proponents removed most of the Republican amendments that had broadened the productliability bill and had made it more like legislation passed by the House. In addition to Dole’s amendment, a provision to limit punitive damage awards in medical malpractice cases was taken out.

What remained was the core product-liability bill, which caps punitive damage awards at twice a claimant’s compensatory damages, plus a provision pushed by small business.

That provision sets a special punitive damages cap in all civil cases for individual defendants whose net worth is less than $500,000 or for business owners or local governments with fewer than 25 full-time employees.

The cap is $250,000 or twice compensatory damages, whichever is less.

A similar amendment, proposed by freshman Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, was approved by voice vote on Wednesday.

Pamela Gilbert, spokeswoman for a coalition of consumer groups, called the provision “outrageous.”

“Pegging punishment to the number of employees in a company is not sensible,” she said, contending that the company’s assets would be a fairer benchmark.



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