Software Expert Gets High-Tech Heave-Ho
By Stephen Barr
After software expert Leon A. Kappelman faulted legislation designed to limit Y2K litigation during his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, an influential high-tech lobbying group bumped him off its Y2K task forces.
Kappelman, a professor at the University of North Texas, contends that many industries are subjected to "lemon laws" when they sell defective products and that software manufacturers should not be given special treatment because of Year 2000 computer problems. Last month, he criticized a House bill designed to limit penalties for businesses in the event of computer breakdowns starting Jan. 1.
But the criticism rubbed the Information Technology Association of America, which represents 11,000 technology companies, the wrong way. Kappelman was asked to leave its Year 2000 task force and the ITAA Y2K legal advisory group.
"It wasn't entirely unexpected that they went and did this," Kappelman said. "I had discussed this with them before, and some of my views supported them and others did not, but obviously when I testified, I stepped over the line."
Then, with a chuckle, Kappelman added, "You know, I've been thrown out of better places."
In an interview, Kappelman argued that the House bill, with its caps on punitive damages and liability shields for corporate boards, would likely backfire and serve as an incentive not to fix Y2K problems. "I don't think you should take the pressure off companies to do Y2K work," he said. "If you do the crime, you ought to do the time."
ITAA spokesman Bob Cohen said Kappelman belonged to the association's Y2K groups "on a courtesy basis. . . . He came to be in strong opposition of officially adopted positions of the association, so we felt it was no longer appropriate for him to participate in sessions where legislative strategy might be developed."
Despite the falling out, ITAA President Harris Miller said the North Texas professor could rejoin ITAA Y2K task forces when the congressional fight over the liability legislation ends, Cohen reported.
Kappelman, though, expressed doubts yesterday about rejoining ITAA. "I think what they are doing is bad for the high-tech industry," he said.
Stalled in the Senate
The Senate version of the Y2K liability bill has been stalled for about three weeks, but Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) hopes to get the bill moving today with a vote on a motion to proceed.
But Democratic congressional aides predicted Democrats may object and prefer to keep debate focused on a pending juvenile justice bill. Other aides warned that Y2K might get pushed back yet another week because the Senate will need to take up a $15 billion defense and disaster aid bill.
The Senate Y2K bill is being pushed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), but it has drawn the opposition of the trial lawyers' lobby and consumer groups.
Trying to find some middle ground, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) has been circulating a Y2K "litigation reform" bill that appears to resolve many of the concerns expressed by the Clinton administration. Supporting Kerry are Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), John B. Breaux (D-La.) and Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), congressional aides said. Kerry says his bill would encourage companies to fix their Y2K problems but also discourage frivolous class action lawsuits. Unlike the McCain bill, it would provide some protections for consumers and would not cap punitive damages. Like the McCain bill, it includes a formula for determining how much blame could be assigned to companies when computer systems malfunction because of Y2K defects.
Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, will oppose the Kerry compromise, just as it did the House bill and the McCain-Wyden-Dodd version, said Joan Mulhern, legislative counsel for the public interest group.
"The problem with all these bills is that they do not require affirmative steps to fix the problem before the end of the year," she said.
'Buzzards and Vultures'
Respond When the House voted last week to approve its Y2K liability bill, the debate seemed focused just as much on the bill's top opponent--the trial lawyers' lobby--as on whether computers using two-digit date fields will properly interpret "00" as 2000, not 1900, and not malfunction.
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) urged colleagues to shelter the computer industry from "greedy lawsuits" and "protect the problem solvers, not those that are sitting on the sidelines now licking their chops hoping the problem will not be solved so they can move in like a bunch of buzzards and vultures and feed off the carcasses."
Mark S. Mandell, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, dismissed Armey's remarks. "I think his comments are foolish," Mandell said. "They are purely political and illustrate a complete lack of understanding about the system of justice and why America's judicial system is the envy of the world."
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