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from the Chicago Tribune
May 10, 1995

President Clinton released a statement last week insisting that the broad civil liability reform bill being pushed by Republican senators would prevent the punishment of drunk drivers, rapists, child molesters, polluters and terrorists. Oh? When did we repeal the criminal laws that provide appropriate penalties for such offenses?

We didn't, of course, and the rules on punitive damages in the Senate bill would only do what criminal laws already do--limit the range of punishments for an offense and so deprive juries of the opportunity to inflict whatever punishment they can dream up.

But the President's promise to veto any bill that restrains such awards except in product liability cases did have its intended effect: forcing Republicans to go back to the drawing board. The Senate voted yesterday to end debate on the resulting narrower measure, which is considered certain to pass. The changes make it a better bill.

There undoubtedly are too many lawsuits and too generous awards in other types of cases. But that problem is one to be addressed by state legislatures. If doctors are being swamped with lawsuits in Florida, say, Floridians will pay the price in higher fees and less accessible services--and Floridians can fix the problem by revising the state tort law. A federal remedy is not necessary. Nor is it consistent with the Republicans' belief in restoring authority to the states.

But product liability is different. Nearly half of all product liability suits are filed in federal court, making a federal standard particularly important. In addition, manufactured goods, from cars to contraceptives, trade in a national market; very few products sold at the typical department store originated anywhere near the place where they are purchased.

The result is that the state that makes it easiest for plaintiffs to prevail in court can dictate what products will be available to consumers in the entire country--not to mention raising prices everywhere for litigation-prone goods that remain on the market. Residents of Maine cannot influence the decisions of the Alabama legislature, but they are greatly affected by them. The only way to address this national problem is with a national law on product liability.

The narrower bill, while a disappointment to militant tort reformers- -and to the House, which passed a broader bill of its own--would be a great improvement over the status quo. Its chief provision would limit punitive damages to twice the actual damages or $250,000, whichever is more, and would provide ample disincentives for manufacturers while putting a stop to gigantic awards with no connection to reality. The Senate already has passed a worthy measure to discourage frivolous lawsuits by allowing stiffer penalities against the offending lawyers.

Product liability has long been the tort problem most deserving of federal action. The president and the Senate Republicans may not agree on where to stop with tort reform, but they seem to have agreed on where to start.

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