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Trying Their Case in Congress

Businesses are seeking to limit awards in liability lawsuits. A measure involving the fuel additive MTBE highlights the efforts.

May 18, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the manufacturers of a gasoline additive blamed for fouling water supplies across the country were hit with lawsuits, they did what a growing number of businesses are doing: They sought protection from Congress.

A little-noticed measure, approved by the House last month as part of an energy policy bill, would limit the liability the producers of the fuel additive MTBE would face for groundwater contamination. Critics, who hope the provision dies in the Senate, call it special-interest legislation that would force taxpayers to pick up the tab for cleaning up water supplies.

California is among states that have ordered use of the additive be phased out. Meanwhile, a number of water agencies in the state have filed suits over contamination of groundwater.

The battle is emblematic of a larger struggle in Congress over how far the government should go in shielding businesses from lawsuits.

Businesses ranging from HMOs to gun manufacturers to companies that develop anti-terrorism technologies are finding a friendlier climate on Capitol Hill for their efforts to cut down on what they regard as a barrage of frivolous suits.

"Business sees that it has Republican control of the House, the Senate, and the White House ... and it is trying to use this to adopt incredibly protective legislation," USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said.

A bill that would shield gun makers from lawsuits for the "harm caused by the criminal or unlawful misuse" of a firearm cleared the House and stands a good chance of passing the Senate. A bill limiting the liability of airlines if armed pilots accidentally shoot a crew member or passenger has become law. An existing law capping the nuclear industry's liability in the event of a catastrophic accident is expected to be extended this year.

A bill that would limit medical malpractice awards, a priority of President Bush, has cleared the House but faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. A proposal to limit the liability of former manufacturers of asbestos-containing materials is being drafted. And House GOP leaders are pushing the "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act," a bill that would ban lawsuits -- like one unsuccessfully brought against McDonald's -- blaming fast-food restaurants for obesity and other health problems.

These measures are rooted in the deep-seated belief among Republicans that the legal system has been subject to abuse. Add to that a desire by GOP lawmakers to strike back at a favorite target: trial lawyers, a major campaign contributor to Democratic candidates.


Pet Issue for Bush

The issue -- a favorite one of Bush's -- is likely to emerge in the presidential campaign.

As governor of Texas, Bush pushed through dramatic limits on punitive damages in the state. As president, he has blamed "junk" lawsuits for driving up health-care costs and running doctors out of the profession.

On the other hand, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, made a fortune as a trial lawyer before seeking office.

"I trust the regular Americans who serve on juries to do what's right for women, children, seniors and other people whose rights this president wants to take away," he said after Bush proposed limiting to $250,000 noneconomic -- or "pain and suffering" -- damages awarded medical malpractice victims.

Donald Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, called the efforts a "two-fer for Republicans -- protection of many of the party's important constituencies and an attack on attorneys, many of whom have won large settlements."

Some legal scholars say there may be instances where limits on liability are needed.

"But there always is a serious cost to limiting liability: People with serious injuries go uncompensated and a key deterrent to wrongdoing for unsafe product is lost," Chemerinsky said.

In his view, most of the liability-protection bills before Congress are "simply self-interest legislation: business trying to help itself, with what they perceive as a sympathetic Congress and president, at the expense of consumers and the environment."

"The system fundamentally works," added Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America. "What the advocates of these limits on the legal rights of American families are saying is that they do not trust the American people who [serve on juries] to make an intelligent decision and that Washington somehow knows best, even better than the people who hear the facts of the case."

But Gretchen Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the American Tort Reform Assn., said, "The system is unbalanced, unfair and out of control. We see the mega-verdicts too frequently, which ultimately slaps a lawsuit tax on goods and services we all must pay."

Robert A. Rusbuldt, chief executive officer of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, said Republicans see limiting business liability as a jobs issue.


Long-Running Debate

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