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Bad Fix for Junk Lawsuits

May 31, 2003

Lobbyists are lining up in Washington to cut special deals to protect their clients from lawsuits. This is no way to reform the legal system.

As reported by The Times' Richard Simon, it seems everyone wants to be exempted from facing legal consequences: Gun makers are pressing Congress to limit lawsuits sparked by the unlawful use of firearms. The oil industry is lobbying for prohibitions against lawsuits linked to a gasoline additive that is polluting underground water supplies. And former manufacturers of asbestos-containing materials are pushing Congress for liability limits.

Business argues that tort reform is necessary to stem a rush of "junk" lawsuits designed to produce hefty punitive damage awards that ultimately are shouldered by consumers.

That argument has merit, but what is happening now doesn't even have a vague resemblance to tort reform. This is tort exception, pure and simple. The piecemeal approach -- the nuclear power, airline and health-care industries also have gotten in line -- risks doing more harm than good.

Two bills that involve groundwater protection underscore how this special-interest game is being played. Manufacturers of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) persuaded the House of Representatives to set liability limits for the additive, which helps gasoline burn more smoothly but is contaminating groundwater in California and more than a dozen other states. Water agencies that are suing refinery operators to force environmental cleanups oppose the legislation. At the same time, the water industry is lobbying for its own set of protections against "frivolous lawsuits" that threaten to drive up water costs.

Before meddling, Congress should determine whether limits really are needed. A 1996 Department of Justice survey of lawsuits filed in the nation's 75 largest counties determined that only 3% of plaintiffs who won their cases also won punitive damage verdicts -- and that the median award was $38,000.

And if Congress follows through on President Bush's call for a national cap on pain-and-suffering damage awards for medical malpractice suits, it should set reasonable limits that won't favor health-care providers at the expense of patients who have been harmed by medical negligence.

Judges can do their part by carefully using existing powers to reduce or reverse jury awards determined to be excessive -- in line with a Supreme Court order Monday to a California appeals court to reconsider a $290-million jury award against Ford Motor Co.

The Senate should sit on the growing list of special-interest "tort reform" bills already approved by the House. The only thing worse than runaway litigation is a cadre of runaway lobbyists jostling for special deals that leave the public holding an empty bag.

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