Charles Krauthammer's attack on product liability lawsuits is riddled with defective reasoning ["Class-Action Extortion," op-ed, June 25]. Far from the menace Krauthammer proclaims, the right of individual Americans to hold corporations accountable for fraud and negligence is something to be proud of.
The proof? Start in your medicine chest. No more arthritis drugs that cause fatal kidney and liver damage. No more tampons linked to fatal toxic shock syndrome. No more IUDs that can result in pelvic disease and septic abortions.
Visit your child's bedroom. Your son's football helmet has been redesigned to reduce spinal injuries. Your daughter's pajamas are no longer made from highly flammable fabric. And the headboard on your baby's crib won't cause an accidental hanging.
In the back yard, your new power mower keeps rocks and stones from turning into fatal projectiles. And when you take your new car for a drive, you don't have to worry about your gas tank exploding in a low-speed collision or about a defective minivan door latches that can hurl passengers onto the street.
In each case above, company management knew about the dangers -- and often knew how to fix them -- but chose to profit from marketing dangerous products.
Who made things right? The marketplace didn't fix itself, and neither did government regulators. Change occurred only after aggrieved private citizens, whose loved ones had been killed and injured, sued in court, proved their case and hit the wrongdoers where it hurt -- the bottom line.
Krauthammer is especially off the mark in his discussion of breast implants and vinyl medical products -- the two cases he cites as supposed proof for his theory of "bogus" lawsuits.
First, silicone breast implants. Overwhelming evidence proves that these are defective products. One in four women requires additional surgery within five years because of complications. Half of all implants rupture and leak within 10 years. The manufacturer knew this yet promised its products would "last a lifetime."
Indeed, the new scientific report that Krauthammer cites confirms these high rupture rates and their attendant problems. But the report does not, as he claims, exonerate implants in causing systemic disease. Rather, it accurately points out that evidence of such a link does not yet exist.
Why? The major manufacturer of implants -- which funded most existing studies -- admits that it first funneled all research requests through its legal department to assess their impact on potential liability. Only now, two decades later, is a comprehensive, impartial study finally underway.
As for the danger of vinyl plasticizers in medical products such as IV bags, the study Krauthammer cites as proving "no health risk whatever associated with these chemicals" was conducted by an organization that receives major funding from the plastics and chemical industries. A more complete study, released a few weeks earlier by a coalition of public health groups, reached the opposite conclusion, as did the Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union. Perhaps that's why all the major science journalists ignored the report Krauthammer touts.
I agree with Krauthammer when he cites the Tylenol product-tampering scare as an example of a company succeeding in troubled times through open and honest public disclosure. We need more such voluntary disclosure, not less.
But in those cases where corporations choose to conceal rather than disclose health and safety problems, we turn to the courts as a last resort to ensure justice for victims and to deter such concealment in the future.
Efforts now underway in Congress would undermine the public's right to sue over unsafe products by reducing access to attorneys and by limiting damages. Congress -- and Krauthammer -- should think twice about such tampering with the system. It has served the American people well.
-- Jan Schlichtmann
The writer is a lawyer whose suit on behalf of victims of toxic-waste dumping was the basis for the book and film "A Civil Action."