Last year, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, trying to assess the government's liability for injuries arising out of the Swine Flu vaccination program, was about to perform a study on product liability.
The Department of the Interior, faced with the problems of injuries on government-owned playgrounds, also needed a study to determine the government's liability for injuries occuring on playgroung equipment.
By some stroke of luck, both studies were killed before they began because alert staffers reading the Federal Register and a trade publication discovered that a comprehensive liability study already had been performed and that the results had been published by the Commerce Department in seven volumes.
But at least a dozen such repetive studies by other agencies and legislative offices on virtually the same subject were not stopped because the people working on them had little or no knowledge that the other existed.
The result has been that several government agencies have implemented markedly different policies concerning the government's liability on everything ranging from accidents on government property to illness stemming from government funded innoculations.
The Army, for example, will assume accident liability on a project one year after the project is completed and it has passed inspection, even though another agency, NASA, will not idemnify any contractor at any time. If you want ot sue, sue the builder.
And the Department of Transportation, obviously unaware of any government precedent on such matters, agreed to assume liability responsibility and indemnify the contractor for the first $100 million on all work done on the Northeast Corridor Rail Improvement Project. So if you want to sue in that case, sue the government.
Unfortunately, at least a dozen federal agency or department studies that have been or will be completed involve the study of accident or prouct liability - and none of them bothered to contact each other or the interagency task force.
In a rare display of government candor, a department of Commerce option paper issued recently goes into some depth on the subject of all of these studies, and chides the system that allows them to coexist wtih each initiating agency having little or no knowledge of the other efforts.
Discussing the growing problem of determining how to apportion the costs of accidents, the Commerce study says, "In the past decade, the federal government has been repeatedly drawn into this problem - millions of dollars have been spent studying it . . . at present there are a number of accident compensation problem areas under consideration within the government."
But, the study points out, "each initiative is being undertaken separately."
Prof. Victor Schwartz is a University of Cincinnati law professor on leave to the Commerce Department to head the Working Task Force on Product Liability, an interagency effort.He is particularly frustrated by the seemingly endless number of wasteful overlaps.
"We don't even know about other studies being done about the same subject." he said in an interview.
He said all of the studies deal with - or should deal with - three key policy issues:
When is federal money to be used to back up private insurance payouts?
When or why should the U.S. government get into the insurance business?
When is the federal government going to impose restrictions on state liability laws?
The existing government studies dealing with liability range from a Labor Department study on worker compensation, to such things as no-fault insurance legislation being drafted, an Interior Department study of injuries on government playgrounds, crime victim compensation legislation, who should pay for damage by oil spills or atomic power plant accidents, etc.
"We need some group, somewhere, to deal with the issues of torts and liability," says Schwartz. Presently, liability is determined on a state-by-state basis. But because the variance between states is great, and because so many issues of indemnification now ignore state lines, some kind of consistency is needed, Schwartz says - most likely a federal effort aimed at making state regulations more consistent.
In his option paper, Schwartz has asked the Carter administration to establish an Interagency Council on Accident Compensation that would review, oversee and coordinate all liability and compensation studies and legislative initatives to prevent duplicative research.
Failing that, an office can be established in an existing agency, like HEW or DOT, to do the same thing, Schwartz says.
Schwartz calls the interagency council "a practical method for finding out more about individual initiatives in the areas of accident compensation." He prefers the council because it is not a permanent structure, and can get enough of a grasp on the present problem to see if more coordination is necessary.
But interagency mechanisms are sometimes slow, and "can be lost in a maze of other interagency efforts," he warns.
"I hate to use this example, but it's really true," he says."What we see here are several independent efforts aimed at rebuilding the wheel."