WASHINGTON – Maryland’s congressional delegation is splitting along party lines on a bill that would limit damage awards in cases involving defective products.
The measure passed the Senate Thursday, 59-40, and is headed to the House and a probable presidential veto.
Maryland Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski sided with most other Democrats in voting against the bill.
“When there are such deep and serious differences about the impact of this legislation, I must lean on the side of protecting consumers,” Mikulski said in a written statement. “I must protect public health and safety first.”
Three of Maryland’s four Republican House members have expressed support: Republican Reps. Robert Ehrlich of Timonium, Constance Morella of Bethesda and Roscoe Bartlett of Frederick.
Morella said she supports the legislation because it would reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits. “It would free up the courts to a great degree,” she said.
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Kennedyville said he had yet to decide.
Two of Maryland’s three House Democrats – Reps. Albert Wynn of Largo and Steny Hoyer of Mitchellville – said they are leaning against the legislation.
“I don’t like the caps on punitive damages,” Wynn said. “A punitive damage award is designed from a policy standpoint to have a chilling effect” on deliberate wrongdoing.
Punitive damages go beyond compensating for actual loss.
Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin of Baltimore said he was undecided.
The bill would limit punitive damages in product liability cases to the greater of $250,000 or twice the amount of compensatory damages. But it would allow judges under certain circumstances to allow higher punitive damages.
For suits filed against businesses with fewer than 25 employees or individuals with a net worth of no more than $500,000, the cap would be placed at the lesser of the above two amounts.
The bill would also require any lawsuits on injuries caused by defective products to be filed within 15 years after the product was sold.
The legislation has been a focal point of intense debate between supporters such as business interests and opponents such as trial lawyers and consumer groups.
Opponents claim the legislation would allow to go unpunished irresponsible behavior by manufacturers who knowingly put unsafe products on the market.
Janelle Cousino, executive director of Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, said such reform “has traditionally been the purview of the states.”
Supporters claim that product-liability law has gotten out of hand and puts U.S. manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage.
The legislation is needed to help American manufacturers compete domestically and internationally, said Miles Cole, director of business affairs at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Cousino said the punitive damage provision should not affect Maryland since it is already “so hard to get punitive damages in Maryland. You must prove you intend to hurt a particular person.”
Cole said Maryland manufacturers sell products in other states, and therefore need to be concerned with the liability laws elsewhere.
In the Senate vote Thursday, 12 Democrats voted for the bill, while six Republicans joined the opposition. Sen. Robert Kerry, D-Neb., did not vote.
A House vote could come as early as next week.
President Clinton has said he would veto the bill if it passes Congress. But he said Thursday he could sign the bill if modifications are made. “There are some changes that I think are relatively modest that could be made that would permit me to sign it,” he told reporters at the White House. -30-