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TAKING PRODUCT LIABILITY TO TASK

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WASHINGTON-The possibility that the White House is creating a task force to negotiate product liability reform legislation is winning high marks from reform advocates.

Washington business circles were abuzz with unofficial reports last week that a task force-supposedly to be headed by Bruce Lindsey, one of President Clinton's closest advisers-was being formed to negotiate with congressional supporters of product liability reform. The task force supposedly also would include representatives of the Commerce and Justice departments, as well as the Small Business Administration.

A White House spokeswoman could not confirm that a formal task force had been named, and noted that Mr. Lindsey was not in the office last week. She did confirm, however, that product liability reform was being discussed in the administration.

"Staff here and from various agencies are continuing to talk about ways to address the president's desire to reform product liability law while still maintaining that level of consumer protection that he's expressed concern about in the past. It's the kind of thing that we routinely talk to agencies about on a variety of issues; it's a common practice," the spokeswoman said.

Pro-reform forces are enthusiastically greeting the creation of even an informal group to negotiate a solution to the long-running issue of product liability reform.

"It's a very positive step forward. The faster we get to the negotiating table, the better off we'll be," said Pat Rowland, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Product Liability Coordinating Committee.

The PLCC issued a statement last week saying it is "encouraged by President Clinton's action and (thinks) it is a step toward fulfilling his promise in last year's veto statement-to support meaningful reform."

The formation of an interagency group shows "that they are serious to finally resolve this after two decades," said Victor E. Schwartz, the PLCC's general counsel and longtime reform advocate.

"I think it's a good idea. The Commerce Department has a long history on this topic going back to 1976. The Uniform Product Liability Act, which is the basis for current legislation, was developed in the Department of Commerce," said Mr. Schwartz. He also noted that the UPLA was the basis for product liability reform legislation first introduced in the House by Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., in 1979.

"In my mind, one of the most important people from the very beginning is John Dingell. He is the only one who was able to move a bill through a Democratic House," Mr. Schwartz said.

Mr. Schwartz also praised the inclusion of representatives of the Justice Department and the SBA in the task force. "The Department of Justice has the tort expertise that is needed to make good judgment about the merits of the bill, and the Department of Justice was instrumental in developing the very successful General Aviation Act."

That act, which set uniform product liability standards for certain classes of aircraft, was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994.

"The presence of Small Business Administration is very good," added Mr. Schwartz, noting that small business has been among the most vocal advocates of reform.

A spokesman for Rep. Dingell would not comment on whether the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee might have prodded the White House into action.

"He supports product liability reform and is pleased with any steps taken to move this forward. He has been concerned about this for some time," said the spokesman.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said the White House had not contacted the senator regarding any product liability moves. Sen. Gorton was the chief sponsor of the product liability reform bill approved on a strict party line by the Senate Commerce Committee last month (BI, May 5).

Because of the lack of detail about the White House's actions, some reform advocates reacted more guardedly to the reports.

"To the extent that this represents a decision on the part of the administration to basically see to conclusion a product liability reform measure, we certainly would welcome that. However, to the extent that this turns out to be another delaying tactic, we would be very disappointed," said David Farmer, senior vp in the Alliance of American Insurers' Washington office.

Stephen M. Wilder, president of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. in New York and vp-risk management for The Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, Calif., said, "If it helps move meaningful reform forward, then RIMS would obviously be very supportive, and we'd be happy to serve as a resource to the task force however we can help."

An opponent of uniform product liability standards said, however, that consumer groups are not pleased about the possibility that a White House task force will deal with the issue.

"We're not happy about it. It puts the onus on Clinton. He's already spelled out what's unacceptable to him," said Rich Vuernick, legislative director for Citizen Action in Washington.

The president may be moving to protect himself, Mr. Vuernick said.

"I think the fact that it's interagency may give him a way to protect himself or insulate himself from the pressure the business community has put on him," he said.