Drunk driving and bankruptcy

The federal bankruptcy laws were designed to protect individuals and businesses from dire hardship: in the case of individuals and families, to leave enough assets on hand to get by; in the case of businesses, to meet payrolls and immediate operating costs, pending a reorganization. The public, therefore, should be concerned when bankruptcy proceedings are used to escape clear legal responsibilities.

Some labor analysts argue that businesses are now using bankruptcy proceedings to cut labor costs, curb the power of unions, and escape liability from prospective civil lawsuits. Examples range from cases involving airlines that have filed for reorganization to a building-chemical firm concerned about lawsuits involving asbestos. Congress should examine whether bankruptcy laws are being misused in these instances. If that is the case, bankruptcy proceedings need to be tightened.

Another misuse of bankruptcy laws deserves special attention. It is the use of bankruptcy to escape civil liability in drunken-driving cases where the drunken drivers have been found guilty and have been ordered to make monetary restitution to injured parties and their families. How is the bankruptcy act being circumvented? As noted earlier this year by Senator Danforth, one Jefferson Country, Mo., driver - who was ordered by a court to pay $600,000 to the families of three teen-agers, two of whom were killed and the third seriously injured as a result of his driving - promptly ''marched across the street to the federal courthouse'' and asked the bankruptcy court to ''absolve him of financial responsibility for his deeds.''

In a number of cases, bankruptcy courts have now done just that - absolved drunken drivers from civil responsibility. The bankruptcy laws currently have a glaring loophole. Only actions that are ''willful and malicious'' are exempt from bankruptcy proceedings. Drunken-driving offenses do not fall in that category.

Senator Danforth, along with Senators Pell, Boschwitz, and Dole, would define the operation of a motor vehicle while legally intoxicated as a willful and malicious act for purposes of the bankruptcy statute. That would mean that if a debt is incurred as a result of drunken driving, that debt cannot be discharged through normal bankruptcy proceedings.

Such a recommendation was recently added to the final report of the President's Commission on Drunk Driving. The commission is completing its work and is expected to meet with President Reagan sometime soon. The issue is not one of harshly penalizing individuals convicted of drunken driving, or their families.

In that regard, Congress might provide some financial redress for the families of drunken drivers. They too, after all, need assets to live on.

But the existing bankruptcy laws should not be used as a convenient way of avoiding one's legal obligations to society.

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