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Irvine Engineering Official Joins Legal Reform Effort : Law: Support is sought in Congress for measure by Rep. Cox to protect 'deep pocket' firms against excessive damage awards.

March 23, 1995|LISA RICHWINE | STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON — J.E. (Ed) Van Dell says he devotes part of each day in the Irvine offices of his engineering firm to fighting the nation's legal system.

As president of Van Dell & Associates, Van Dell says he spends $15,000 to $80,000, not to mention a chunk of his time, fending off each lawsuit filed against his company.

"Very seldom do we have a day where we don't have a lawsuit to deal with," he said.

But Van Dell claims the lawsuits are baseless. Lawyers go after him because he has the "deep pockets" to pay a settlement, he said.

Sporting buttons reading "Don't Sue Me," Van Dell and nearly 300 other engineers are canvassing the Capitol this week to urge an overhaul of the legal system.

In part, they are asking the Senate to endorse a provision by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) that would protect some companies from excessive awards.

The measure, which passed the House this month as part of a far-reaching legal reform bill, would make companies liable for only their "fair share" of damages.

Under current law, a person or company deemed liable for a small percentage of the damages often pays the total award, Cox said. Under his legislation, those parties would pay for only that percentage of total damages for which they are held responsible.

"The current system holds people accountable for things they didn't do," Cox said Tuesday. "And no one knows what's going to happen when they get to court."

Cox's effort is part of a broad legal reform package that also caps punitive damages and requires losers to pay winners' legal fees in some cases.

Trial lawyers and consumer groups oppose the legislation because they say the threat of damages protects consumers from unsafe or shoddy products and services.

The Senate is not expected to act on legal reform issues until after its spring recess next month.

One bill, sponsored by Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) includes similar language to the Cox measure. But it is uncertain whether the Senate will send that measure forward or pursue a narrower product liability measure.

Making sure the Cox amendment passes the Senate is a priority of the American Consulting Engineers Council, a group of about 200,000 engineers, architects and other specialists who are involved in the early design phases of projects.

Each of the engineers came to Washington with a personal horror story.

In one of Van Dell's cases last year, homeowners in Newport Beach had sued a developer for damages from rotting wood in their new residences. After three years with no success, their lawyers filed suit against Van Dell's firm, which had designed the home's grading and drainage system.

A judge ruled he was not liable for the damages, but Van Dell had already spent $60,000 in legal fees fighting the case, he said.

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