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Posted On: Aug. 23, 1998 12:00 AM CST

PRESIDENT CLINTON's signature on a biomaterials product liability reform bill earlier this month gives supporters of product law reform another excellent chance to prove their case for broader federal legislation.

Making opponents of the biomaterials bill -- an example of targeted, incremental product liability reform -- appear like Chicken Little shouldn't be all that difficult. After all, that's what happened after President Clinton signed another narrowly drawn product liability reform bill in 1994 aimed at reviving the general aviation aircraft industry. Opponents of that earlier bill predicted all kinds of dire events, stopping just short of hinting that the sky itself would fall if light aircraft manufacturers enjoyed even modest product liability relief.

Well, the sky didn't fall, small aircraft haven't become flying coffins and thousands of Americans who might otherwise be unemployed now have jobs in a once-threatened industry.

The biomaterials product liability law also is likely to bring broad benefits. The law targets a particular industry: manufacturers of the raw materials that go into making medical devices. It gives the manufacturers some new legal protections but stops short of providing those companies with blanket immunity from product liability suits. If they're at fault, they still can be sued. Victims of faulty products won't be left without redress, contrary to opponents' claims.

The law helps assure that these biomaterials remain available by protecting manufacturers against lawsuits for which they should bear no responsibility. If the law works out as its proponents say it will, foes of product liability reform will once again look like alarmists.

It's worth noting that some of the law's most vocal proponents are not big business but the very people who likely would have a reason to sue: those whose lives or loved ones depend upon devices containing biomaterials. If the law works as planned, those people won't have to worry that their lifelines literally will be choked off.

That is additional evidence that the beneficiaries of product liability reform are, contrary to what some high-profile foes say, not only business but also consumers.

With the positive examples of the general aviation and biomaterials laws to draw from, Congress will be, no doubt, much more receptive to the next industry that calls for relief from unfair liability exposures.

In fact, given the current situation in Washington, industry-by-industry reform may be the most realistic short-term strategy. After all, this Congress has less than two months to go, and broad-based reform of anything isn't high on anyone's agenda as November elections loom.

President Clinton, who vetoed a modest yet comprehensive reform bill in 1996, would gain little political capital by embracing broad reform in the last two years of his administration.

His would-be successors on both sides of the aisle will be jockeying for position during the remainder of his term. Given that comprehensive product liability reform requires bipartisan consensus, its chances before 2001 are probably dimmer than they were two years ago.

That gives the biomaterials law a chance to prove itself, and -- along with the success of the general aviation law -- helps pave the way for further industry-specific reform. Eventually, we predict, those incremental successes will lead to broader legal protections for all industry -- while assuring the supply of goods that consumers demand.