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Washington Beat

Washington Beat

Reform finally on the horizon for product-liability cases

Industry is holding its breath, but it looks as if some relief is coming in product-liability cases--perhaps by the end of this year. That's good news to design engineers working for manufacturers who must divert huge sums away from development programs and into litigation expenses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce figures American firms are paying more than $100 billion per year for legal services and liability-insurance premiums. Whopping awards are going to persons claiming injury from the use of products, some of which are decades old. That has spurred a surge of nuisance suits against manufacturers. Trial lawyers know that most firms settle out of court rather than face trial expenses. The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) surveyed its members and found that 40% had liability claims against them last year. Of 89 claims closed last year, only five reached trial. AMT members won all five, but paid stiff lawyer fees. Warns a Chamber official: "Most small businesses are just one lawsuit away from being driven out of business."

Whatever makes it through Hill likely to be signed by Clinton

House and Senate conferees must hash out differences in the two product-liability bills. Congressional leaders of both parties want final action this year. James H. Mac, AMT's vice president for government relations, predicts that any bill making it to the White House will get the President's signature. Such a bill would likely be close to the Senate version, which is backed by Democratic Ben. John D. Rockefeller. Reason: Senate Republicans lack the votes to cut off a filibuster against a tougher bill.

EPA seeks pledges from makers of heavy-duty non-road engines

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is urging manufacturers of non-road engines and equipment to agree to reduce emissions from their products. If they do, EPA officials think a new trend could be underway for other industries. Last July makers of highway heavy-duty engines announced intentions to work together to reduce smog. Based on that, EPA is proposing a regulation to cut emissions from trucks and buses starting with the 2004 model year.

'Fuzzy Logic' among new add-ons for engineers using Mathematical

The creators of the Mathematica computer program have come out with new add-ons for engineers. Among them is a Fuzzy Logic Pack. It offers advanced numeric and symbolic techniques to designers of products using "smart" systems. The tools are not only for experienced users of fuzzy logic, but also for those who want to learn more about applying the system to their work. Fuzzy logic helps engineers find solutions beyond the reach of conventional techniques. Resulting products are easier to build and provide simpler, smoother controls. WolfRam Research, Inc., of Champaign, IO, also released a Mechanical Systems Pack. It is an assortment of software tools that mechanical engineers can use for modeling and analyzing multi body mechanical systems. The program includes capabilities for motion analysis of two- and three-dimensional rigid body systems and static and dynamic load analysis. Users can develop and modify complex models, then picture and analyze design changes instantly. A third program, the Time Series Pack, contains ready-to-use algorithms designed for the analysis of time-dependent data. WolfRam offers the programs for all platforms that run Mathematica 2.2 or later. For more information, phone (800) 441-6284.

House, Senate versions differ in scope, damage limits

Both sides of Capitol Hill have passed bills to reform product liability. The proposals limit punitive damages paid by manufacturers, distributors and retailers in product-liability cases. They reduce damages if products have been misused or altered. Both abolish joint liability for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, in which plaintiffs go after defendants with the "deepest pockets." The bills also hold victims responsible if their use of drugs or alcohol contributed to their injury. But the measures differ on some key points. While the Senate version applies only to product-liability cases, the House bill covers all civil litigation, including cases of medical malpractice. The Senate measure has several provisions not in the House bill. It allows judges in "egregious" cases to breach limits on punitive damages. It cuts awards by the amount the claimant gets in workers' compensation and forbids subrogation liens if an employer is at fault. Punitive damages in the House bill cannot exceed the greater of three times the claimant's economic loss or $250,000. The Senate limit is the greater of double the claimant's compensatory damages, including pain and suffering, or $250,000. If a product is more than 15 years old, the House bill disallows claims. The Senate goes back 20 years. Only the House bill provides sanctions against lawyers who make frivolous pleadings.

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