To hear some in Congress tell it, Americans have no one to blame but themselves if other nations are outpacing the United States with innovative products such as new drugs or fancy widgets. If only we would stop suing when products blow up in our faces, then manufacturers would be free to let their imaginations run wild.
That argument for fewer lawsuits comes from lawmakers who are sitting like wooden dummies on the knees of the manufacturing industry.
A bill is before the Senate that would narrow the rights of average Americans to sue because of faulty products. The idea isn't new. The manufacturing lobby floats it regularly. But this time, the bill won committee approval after a heated debate and may be voted on by the entire Senate before the year is out.
We'll be the last ones to advocate more lawsuits. But in the real world, bad products slip by the regulators, and the only justice the little guy gets is from suing the manufacturers' socks off. Congress should not take away that avenue unless the federal government is ready to protect the consumer by doing a decent job of reviewing potentially dangerous products and by punishing the manufacturers when a bad product slips through the system.
A popular example used to buttress the case for limiting lawsuits is a replacement for asbestos. Some experts and consumer advocates say it could cause cancer, just as asbestos did.
Chemical giant Monsanto is keeping the new product in the lab, it has said, because it fears groundless legal entanglements. Supporters of the status quo say there are serious lingering doubts about the product, and it is the threat of a lawsuit that is holding the product in check.
But that argument was lost on the Senate committee when it heard testimony on the Monsanto case and others. Consumer groups testified about potentially unsafe products, but they ended up taking a verbal tongue-lashing from some of the senators, who accused them of using the press to manipulate the issue and even of taking money from the lawyers who bring the product liability suits.
''They didn't like the message, so they shot the messenger,'' consumer lobbyist Pam Gilbert, of Congress Watch, told our associate Dan Njegomir.
Sponsors of the bill, including Sen. Bob Kasten (R-Wis.), insist that they aren't trying to curtail legal rights or promote shoddy products. They simply want to unleash industry to be more inventive without the threat of multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
The argument eventually comes down to how many millions of dollars an injured person should get. As the law now stands, a person can sue for compensatory damages because of an injury -- lost wages or doctor bills. But the injured person can also sue for punitive damages -- the monetary equivalent of a jail term for punishment.
The Senate bill would keep the compensatory damages in place but would severely limit punitive damages, including exempting some industries from any punitive damages if their product had been approved by a regulatory agency such as the FDA.
That would lift a multimillion-dollar burden from the shoulders of manufacturers, and it would also remove a multimillion-dollar incentive for being careful about what they sell. The bottom line is, should companies be punished for their carelessness or should they simply be billed for the damages?