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'A GOVERNMENT OF THE LAWYERS, BY LAWYERS AND FOR LAWYERS'

Congress should recognize reality and adopt a national motto to replace "In God We Trust." It would simply read: "A Government of the Lawyers, by the Lawyers and for the Lawyers."

Anyone who doubts the strength of the lawyers should take a look at failed efforts to reform product liability law in the United States. It provides a valuable case study in how the enormously powerful Association of Trial Lawyers of America can thwart legislation that would help the country, but hurt the incomes of members of the trial bar.

Business has been claiming for years that the dysfunctional hodgepodge of state laws governing product liability has served as a drag on the economy, hurt innovation and damaged this nation's ability to compete in the world market.

The body of evidence supporting this contention has grown to the point where all but the most hard-bitten Naderites and money-hungry trial lawyers would agree.

America's once-powerful light-plane manufacturing industry has crashed and burned, largely because of the liability problems faced by manufacturers.

Twenty percent of the price of a simple ladder is attributable to legal costs. Science magazine has reported that pharmaceutical companies have refused to pursue promising vaccines because of their fear of lawsuits.

The reform before Congress is hardly revolutionary, but it would bring some sense to laws that are the laughingstock of the rest of the industrialized world.

Among other things, a system of potential penalties would encourage settlement and arbitration.

Punitive damages could still be awarded, but only if conscious disregard for public safety can be proved. For death or injury caused by pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and aircraft, no punitive damages could be awarded if a product met government regulations and there was no fraud.

The concept of joint and several liability would be modified. Under this doctrine, companies with a lot of money can be forced to pay all of an award even though others without money also are at fault. A "deep pocket" still would be liable for all actual damages like medical expenses, but for only a portion of pain and suffering awards.

Product liability reform has wide bipartisan support. The National Governors' Association has endorsed a uniform liability code that would pre-empt state laws.

In the House, arch-conservative Republican Newt Gingrich of Georgia supports reform, as does knee-jerk liberal Democrat Barney Frank of Massachusetts. In the Senate, Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina is a reform advocate, along with Democrat Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, whose liberal credentials are unassailable.

The bill would have easily passed the Senate last year, but the trial lawyers organized a filibuster and blocked the will of the majority.

Enough is enough. Trial lawyers need to start thinking more about what is good for America, and less about the size of their contingency fees.

KINGSLEY GUY is editorial page editor of the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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