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`LOSER PAYS' WOULD GIVE FIRMS BIG ADVANTAGE OVER CONSUMERS

AMERICAN CORPORATIONS ARE often willing to pay large amounts of money to obtain something that cannot be seen or held. More powerful than a proxy or a public offering, the prized commodity is silence.

Since knowledge is power, corporations can often boost their profit margins by denying access to full and accurate information on the products they market. As a women's health advocate, I've seen this come at the expense of average Americans with little or no power, particularly the women who are often victims of unsafe drugs and defective consumer goods.The U.S. Congress is currently ramming through radical legislation that would distort our civil justice system. This so-called "Common Sense Legal Reform" should be known as the "Corporate Misconduct Protection Act" because it eliminates or weakens many consumer protections. It also fails to address one of the most serious concerns of women and their families - the silencing of victims injured by reckless corporations.

This "legal reform" actually forces victims to accept secrecy agreements by establishing a "loser pays" scheme - under which ordinary Americans could face paying the legal fees of a legal corporation if they dare to follow through on a legitimate lawsuit, yet lose in court. Few consumers will be willing to take that risk.

When corporations choose profit over safety, thereby deceiving product regulators, there is only one method of recourse left to the unfortunate victims of defective products - the courts. Our product liability system allows victims to sue the makers of harmful products for punitive damages, which punish and deter reckless behavior. This system is now under attack in the U.S. Senate, after being trampled in the House.

The Senate is currently considering a bill (S. 565) that caps punitive damage awards at $250,000, or three times the economic loss of a victim, which would severely weaken one of the best tools consumers have to promote safe products.

The damage caused to women by the Dalkon Shield contraceptive is an example where a reckless manufacturer devastated lives. Only the power wielded by women in court forced the removal of this dangerous product from the market.

Had the current "legal reform" proposals been in place then, the ability of women to win - or even bring to trial - similar product safety cases would have been jeopardized.

Also on the table is the so-called "FDA defense," which would exempt drug and medical device manufacturers from punitive damages on any product that has gained FDA approval.

Corporations rarely remove dangerous products from the market voluntarily. It is often only through the discovery process in legal cases that their dangers come under public scrutiny.

Unless Americans have the ability to bring suit against willfully negligent corporations, we will see greed cripple our efforts to maintain consumer safety and public health. Whether it be through greater risks to public safety - or through increased health-care costs falling to taxpayers when corporations evade responsibility - average Americans will pay while many of us suffer in silence.