Rep. John D. Dingell's hearing room is littered with the corporate ghosts of those who try to double-cross the consumer or gouge the Pentagon. So it was a surprise when we learned that the caustic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is pushing a bill opposed by every consumer group we contacted, a bill that would make it tougher for those injured by dangerous products to sue the manufacturers.
Fearing the wrath of the Michigan Democrat -- the second-most powerful member of the House -- congressional insiders speak about Dingell's bill reluctantly and only on background. Here is what they told our associate Stewart Harris about the bill, which is expected to reach the full committee soon.
Liberal Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) is fronting for Dingell as sponsor of the bill, dubbed the Uniform Product Safety Act. It is supposed to standardize how state courts handle product liability lawsuits, the kind of suit filed when a gas tank explodes in a rear-end collision or a child's pajamas catch fire.
Dingell's aides make a persuasive case for a federal law to smooth out the wrinkles among the states. After all, they say, 70 percent of the products made in this country are sold across state lines. Lobbyists for industries stung by product liability suits argue that the only real winners in the suits are the lawyers. Consumers pick up the tab for high damage awards in the form of higher prices, they say.
But consumer groups fear that Dingell's bill goes too far.
Among other things, it would establish airtight defenses that manufacturers could use in court. One protects pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers from punitive damages if they got Food and Drug Administration approval before going to market. That clause puzzles several Dingell watchers who remember 1984 hearings when Dingell and his aggressive band of investigators pounced on the FDA and the pacemaker industry for allowing doctors to continue implanting defective pacemakers that had been approved by the FDA.
Another provision of Dingell's bill would establish a "state-of-art" defense, letting the manufacturer off the hook if the defective product was designed with the best technology available at the time.
That would create a dangerous standard, according to Gene Kimmelman of the Consumer Federation of America. He says the person who was injured may have to prove that a better design existed when the product was made. Proponents argue that the state will decide who carries the burden of proof on this issue.
Some observers say Dingell is merely serving a major constituent, the Ford Motor Co. Ford has been pestered with product liability suits over the last decade. The car maker is headquartered in Dearborn, the heart of Dingell's district.
As if constituency were not enough to wed him to the auto industry, Dingell is married to former General Motors lobbyist Deborah Insley, who subsequently curtailed her official lobbying activities and now works as an administrator in GM's governmental affairs office.