After nearly two decades of trying, a coalition of manufacturers appears within reach of succeeding this year in having enacted nationwide standards that would limit damages to people who are harmed by faulty products as diverse as toasters, heart valves and cigarettes.
A measure to limit damages in product liability cases passed both houses last year but was vetoed by President Clinton, who asserted it “tilted the field against consumers.”
But this year the debate will occur against a changed political landscape that is generally viewed as far more favorable to proponents of the law.
The issue pits a broad array of business interests who favor the limits on court-approved damage awards against a coalition of consumer groups and trial lawyers and their influential trade organization.
Supporters of the measure contend the legislation is needed to put a cap on multimillion-dollar jury awards that are out of control, inhibit manufacturers and add to consumer costs.
Opponents, like Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer group in Washington, argue that by limiting awards for punitive damages, which are typically given to express anger at reckless or outrageously negligent actions, there is little incentive for manufacturers to stop making unsafe products.
But in addition to the merits of the argument, the debate is being fought with millions of dollars in campaign donations and lobbying fees. Both the lawyers and the manufacturers are among the most generous sources of political donations. “There are millions on the table riding on this issue,” one lobbyist opposed to the legislation said.
The lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was clear that the business community had advantages this time around.
Among the political factors that might have an influence this year is the fact that Clinton is no longer running for re-election. The issue last year cast a shadow on the campaign, and when Clinton vetoed the bill, even members of his own party said that he did so largely to support the American Association of Trial Lawyers, which had generously supported his campaign.
Moreover, in his veto message last May, Clinton outlined the specific objections he had to the bill - providing a road map of changes needed to win his approval this time around.
Although Republican congressional leaders have made productliability legislation a priority this year, Congress has yet to agree on how to fashion a bill intended to win the president’s support.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.