Letter to Congressional Leaders on Product Liability Legislation
Dear Mr. Leader:
I will veto H.R. 956, the Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Act of 1996, if it is presented to me in its current form.
This bill represents an unwarranted intrusion on state authority, in the interest of protecting manufacturers and sellers of defective products. Tort law is traditionally the prerogative of the states, rather than of Congress. In this bill, Congress has intruded on state power—and done so in a way that peculiarly disadvantages consumers. As a rule, this bill displaces state law only when that law is more beneficial to consumers; it allows state law to remain in effect when that law is more favorable to manufacturers and sellers. In the absence of compelling reasons to do so, I cannot accept such a oneway street of federalism, in which Congress defers to state law when doing so helps manufacturers and sellers, but not when doing so aids consumers.
I also have particular objections to certain provisions of the bill, which would encourage wrongful conduct and prevent injured persons from recovering the full measure of their damages. Specifically, the bill's elimination of jointand-several liability for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, will mean that victims of terrible harm sometimes will not be fully compensated for it. Where under current law a joint wrongdoer will make the victim whole, under this bill an innocent victim would suffer when one wrongdoer goes bankrupt and cannot pay his portion of the judgment. It is important to note that companies sued for manufacturing and selling defective products stand a much higher than usual chance of going bankrupt; consider, for example, manufacturers of asbestos or breast implants or intra-uterine devices.
In addition, for those irresponsible companies willing to put profits above all else, the bill's capping of punitive damages increases the incentive to engage in the egregious misconduct of knowingly manufacturing and selling defective products. The provision of the bill allowing judges to exceed the cap in certain circumstances does not cure this problem, given Congress's clear intent, expressed in the Statement of Managers, that judges should do so only in the rarest of circumstances.
The attached Statement of Administration Policy more fully explains my position on this issue—an issue of great importance to American consumers, and to evenly applied principles of federalism.
NOTE: Identical letters were sent to Bob Dole, Senate majority leader, Thomas Daschle, Senate minority leader, Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Richard Gephardt, House minority leader. A statement of administration policy on H.R. 956 was attached to the letter. The letter was made available by the Office of the Press Secretary but was not issued as a White House press release.
William J. Clinton, Letter to Congressional Leaders on Product Liability Legislation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/222619