A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee yesterday sent a product liability bill to the full committee, but only after a nod to consumers and trial lawyers from Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), author of the measure.
The Uniform Product Safety Act of 1987, which has been hotly contested by consumer groups and trial lawyers but strongly supported by business groups, is the first product liability bill ever to reach a committee in the House, sources said.
The bill is intended to reduce the number of product liability suits and transfer actions from courts to a mediation panel.
Business groups have said they favor of the bill, H.R. 1115, because manufacturers need a uniform standard to produce products in all 50 states. Consumer groups have complained that the bill merely serves to give manufacturers more defenses for producing defective products.
"As we move to the full committee ... we will be soliciting comments from all concerned," said Richardson, who then mentioned consumer groups, trial lawyers and business groups. "This bill has a pretty fragile coalition right now," he said.
Consumer groups have complained that the compromise bill presented by Richardson and Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), the subcommittee chairman, was shaped after consultation with business groups but no representation from consumers.
"We're very pleased to hear that," said Pamela Gilbert of U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "We will hold him to that. ... If he's earnest, this cannot move forward right away because of a number of amendments that must be worked on."
While consumer groups began work on their agenda, business interests, which have been trying to get a product liability bill through Congress since 1981, expressed relief. "The momentum is growing. We're excited," said an official of the National Association of Manufacturers.
However, some business officials are said to be backing away from the legislation because they believe it is not tough enough on some issues. Alexander Trowbridge, NAM's president, said yesterday that his organization would like to see protections added for manufacturers of asbestos and the elimination of joint and several liability -- both topics that were taken out of the original bill.
During the markup of the bill in the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Competitiveness, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) offered more than a dozen amendments to address the concerns of consumer groups. Although only two minor amendments were approved by the subcommittee, there has been a noticeable thaw among supporters in their opposition to some of the issues contained in Waxman's amendments.
One reason for that thaw is that a number of Democrats on the full committee are uncomfortable with the legislation, according to several congressional sources.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the full committee and a staunch supporter of the bill, said he hoped the committee would finish with the bill before the holiday recess, but sources said yesterday that looked less and less likely.
Florio said that the staffs of committee members would begin meeting today to work out compromises on issues.