Go Slow on Lawsuit Limit

GIVE the GOP Contract With America credit for wading into issues that Americans really want resolved. This week the House is expected to vote on what began in the Contract as the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. Three bills now would address the lawsuit craze that has swept America. The $2.9 million won recently by a woman who was scalded by spilled coffee from McDonald's is a popular example of the excesses of litigation, and hardly the only one.

Something must be done to reduce frivolous lawsuits that unfairly burden businesses, tie up courts, and have become a boom industry for some avaricious lawyers. Important issues are at stake: What constitutes fair access to remedy in court, and what is abuse of the legal system? To what degree are Americans willing to limit some of their rights to sue corporations in order to unclog the courts and - potentially - reduce the price of products?

Because the issues are profound and complex, it would be in the House leadership's own interest to slow down and make sure that the ``reforms'' they pass don't do more harm than good. There are some valuable elements in the bills: The limit on punitive damages to three times compensatory damages, for example, should be sufficient.

But switching to a British-style ``loser pays'' system for assessing legal fees may go too far and discourage even legitimate lawsuits. And making it harder for individuals to sue corporations who mislead investors seems oddly mistimed with the Barings and Orange County investment scandals in the headlines.

It all begins to smell like a piece of legislation that failed last fall. It, too, tried to make sweeping changes at the federal level that affected the lives of every American. In both cases, special interests managed to get changes in the wording of the complex bills right up to the end; these were questionable side deals that benefited specific industries.

Last fall it was called health-care reform. Americans turned against the legislation when they saw it hadn't been thought through sufficiently. There's a lesson there for Republicans now: Better go slow and get it right.

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