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Tough conference likely on product liability

Demonstrating its more pro-business bent, the Congressional Republican leadership put another notch in its Contract with America belt by passing product liability legislation.

Now House and Senate conferees are trying to come up with a compromise measure between the more ambitious House bill and the Senate's more restrained version that President Bill Clinton will sign. It won't be easy. Trial lawyers and consumer advocates which managed to stymie product liability legislation for more than a decade have vowed to fight on. Senate tort reform proponents made significant compromises including limiting the bill to product liability cases and allowing judges to override damage award limits. This helped end a Democratic filibuster. But Republicans warned there was little room for further negotiation. Main areas of difference: The House limited punitive damages to the greater of three times economic damages or $250. The Senate limited punitive awards to the greater of $250 or twice compensatory damages including economic damages and "pain and suffering" though there is no limit on judges increasing the award. The House bill also contained a $250 cap on "pain and suffering" damages in medical malpractice awards. Both bills eliminated joint and several liability for "pain and suffering" though the House covered all civil cases while the Senate was limited to product liability cases. Congressional staffers say it's too early to predict when or even if a final bill will emerge.

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