WASHINGTON -- After nearly two decades of trying, a coalition of manufacturers appears to be within reach of succeeding this year in getting nationwide standards enacted that would limit damages to people who are harmed by faulty products as diverse as toasters, heart valves and cigarettes.

A measure to limit damages in product liability cases passed both houses of Congress last year but was vetoed by President Clinton, who asserted that it "tilted the field against consumers."

But this year the legislative debate will occur against a changed political landscape that is generally viewed as far more favorable to the proponents of the law.

The issue pits a broad array of organized business interests that favor the limits on court-approved damage awards, against a coalition of consumer groups and trial lawyers and their influential trade organization.

Whether to regulate damages in court cases is among the most complex and cerebral of issues. How should the United States structure its civil litigation system for maximum fairness and accessibility?

Supporters of the measure contend that the legislation is needed to put a cap on multimillion-dollar jury awards that are out of control and inhibit manufacturers and add to consumer costs.

Opponents, such as Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a consumer group in Washington, argue that limiting awards for punitive damages, which are typically given to express anger at reckless or outrageously negligent actions, reduces the incentive for manufacturers to stop making unsafe products.

In addition to the merits of the argument, the debate is being fought with millions of dollars in campaign donations and lobbying fees.

Both the lawyers and the manufacturers are among the most generous sources of political donations. "There are millions on the table riding on this issue," one lobbyist opposed to the legislation said.

The lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was clear that the business community had advantages this time around.

Among the political factors that might have an influence on the legislation this year is that Clinton is no longer running for re-election.

The issue last year cast a shadow on the election campaign, and when Clinton vetoed the bill, even members of his own party said he did so largely to support the American Association of Trial Lawyers, which had generously supported his campaign.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat who was the principal sponsor of the legislation, said the president had sold out his principles to raw politics.

Others speculated that Clinton did not want to give such an appealing consumer issue to Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, who was on the presidential ballot in California.

Moreover, in his veto message last May, Clinton outlined the specific objections he had to the bill -- providing a road map of the changes needed to win his approval this time around.

Although Republican congressional leaders have made product liability legislation a priority this year, Congress has yet to agree on how to fashion a bill intended to win the president's support.

Rockefeller, in an interview, said his Senate colleagues needed to understand that the only chance they have of enacting liability legislation is to accede to much of Clinton's request for changes in the bill.

"It has to be a bill which moves in his direction," Rockefeller said.

"What we have to do to make it work logically flows from his veto."

But even though they are on the verge of victory, many in the business community are engaged in a spirited debate over whether they want to compromise enough to win Clinton's signature.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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