When William A. Forrest, vice president and general counsel of the Richmond-based A.H. Robins Co., visited Capitol Hill last year to ask a legislative favor, it was natural that he took his case to Sen. Paul S. Trible (R-Va.).

Robins, a major pharmaceutical company and one of Virginia's largest employers, was facing a potential financial disaster. Embroiled in thousands of costly lawsuits over its controversial Dalkon Shield, Robins was seeking ways to reduce the numbers of punitive damages awards it was paying to women who suffered injuries from the birth control device.

Trible, a former prosecutor and Virginia's freshman senator, was a new member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which soon was to review legislation to revise federal product liability laws. Already well acquainted with Robins' problems when he met with Forrest in his Senate office, Trible subsequently drafted an amendment to the liability bill that would drastically reduce the company's liability from punitive damages -- those awarded by the courts to punish individuals and corporations for negligence and wrongdoing -- in product liability cases.

"We want to deter and punish corporations, but not to destroy them," Trible said in an interview. "I want to see companies fully and strictly punished for their misdeeds, but reason dictates that some limits be placed on multiple punitive awards."

Trible's amendment has become the most controversial measure the 37-year-old senator has introduced in his eight years in Congress and has made him a target of women's groups, trial attorneys, consumer advocates, labor unions and others.

The measure, approved by the Commerce Committee on an 11-to-5 vote, would make Robins and thousands of other U.S. companies liable for punitive damages to only the first individual to file a successful lawsuit over a defective product, such as the Dalkon Shield. The intrauterine contraceptive, withdrawn by Robins in 1974 under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, was used by 2.2 million women and by this summer punitive damages awarded by the courts because of the device totaled $233 million.

Companies still could be sued for actual damages, but not punitive damages, for negligence and wrongdoing, under Trible's amendment. It also would, Trible says, limit "windfalls" to trial attorneys who successfully press punitive damages cases and then pocket a large portion of the award.

"Perhaps no provision is so totally out of line with court decisions of the last 20 years," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) after Trible's amendment passed in committee " . . . Punitive damages are a necessary weapon for the control of outrageous behavior."

"It encourages companies to put profit ahead of safety," says Nancy Drabble, director of Congresswatch, a nonprofit public interest group founded by Ralph Nader. "Robins claims punitive damages are unfair to them. But the Dalkon Shield wasn't fair to women who had to have miscarriages, who are sterile now, and who suffered pelvic inflammations."

Trible's amendment and the product liability bill could come before the Senate before Congress adjourns early next month. If approved, the bill would have to be passed by the House as well and then sent to the White House.

In the face of mounting criticism, Trible said last month that he will move to weaken some of his original amendment's provisions when the bill comes on the Senate floor. He said he would no longer insist that the bill be retroactive (which would wipe out existing lawsuits for punitive damages, such as 3,600 suits now pending against Robins). Other changes would require punitive awards to be awarded only after a full trial, thus reducing the likelihood of large out-of-court settlements, and would allow for more than one punitive damages award if new or additional evidence of corporate misconduct is discovered.

Even with the changes, the legislation remains the focus of a highly charged political battle. "He was gotten a lot of criticism for being the front-man for Robins and he is trying to avoid bad publicity," says Drabble. "It is an attempt to water down the bill, but it would still harm people trying to recover from defective products."

Gene Kimmelman, legislative director for the Consumer Federation of America, calls the changes "a definite improvement" but says that the bill is still "seriously flawed."

Opponents of Trible's provision and the bill to which it is attached include the Consumer Federation, the National Women's Health Network, the Association of American Trial Lawyers, the National Governor's Association, the American Bar Association, Congresswatch and the AFL-CIO.

About 400 businesses and trade associations -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Tire Dealers and Retreaders Association, among others -- support the overall bill. Only Robins has made a vocal public stand in favor of the Trible amendment according to committee staffers and lobbyists for the bill.

Trible says that women who were hurt by the Dalkon Shield still can receive compensatory damages, which cover costs resulting from pain and suffering, medical expenses, and lost wages.

"There is no effort on my part to interfere with the right to fully recover their damages," he says. "This bill will only enhance the right to fully recover," he says, by making uniform the way product liability cases are heard in federal courts across the nation.

Trible's amendment is on Senate Bill 44, a complex measure sponsored by Sen. Robert W. Kasten (R-Wis.) designed to make product liability subject to uniform federal rules. But so delicate is the Trible amendment that some of the bill's supporters are fearful it could harm the Kasten bill. (Virginia's Sen. John W. Warner, a fellow Republican, says he hasn't decided how to vote on the measure.)

"It looks awful when you have this kind of process," says Victor Schwartz, a former law professor and chief lobbyist for the Product Liability Alliance, which represents 200 businesses and trade groups that support the Kasten measure. "This was a Robins initiative . . . . It can damage the entire bill. To have the tail wag the dog is bad. It hurt."

Trible says it is "a cheap shot" to suggest that he is reaping political benefits from his amendment. "My intention from the outset has been not to rescue a constituent company," he says, "but to achieve a just and reasonable limitation of punitive damages.

"Every issue I tackle as a senator touches the life and fortunes of some people who have contributed to my campaign. You don't just look at issues in terms of who contributes to your campaigns, and how much they contribute."

Of $2.5 million in campaign contributions he raised in 1982, Trible received a few thousand dollars directly from Robins executives, and about $130,248 from corporate PACs that support the product liability bill.

The senior executives of Robins, founded as an apothecary in downtown Richmond in 1866, long have been active in Virginia politics and civic affairs and their company has a strong impact on Richmond's economic well-being. "It's more than a Richmond company, it's a Richmond family," says Congresswatch's Jay Angoff.

E. Claiborne Robins Jr., the company's president and chief executive officer, is a philanthropist and sought-after political fund-raiser who is active in the influential Virginia Business Council. W. Roy Smith, a former Robins executive, is one of the leaders of a group of independents who have helped sway Richmond's Main Street financiers for or against political candidates.

Robins officials say their executives have no strong ties to any party in the state. They say the company has taken an unfair rap for the Dalkon Shield, which accounted for a small portion of the Robins' pharmaceutial products. Trible, for his part, says he has a duty to listen and respond to the concerns of a constituent company that has a major economic impact on his state.

"Senator Trible is our senator and we are a constituent," says John Taylor, Robins' vice president for public affairs. "If you can't call on a U.S. senator to help out in a situation, then I don't know what you are supposed to do in this world."