NC Senate panel removes lawsuit restrictions from bill

Posted by Craig Jarvis on June 10, 2014 

Two controversial provisions of a bill restricting lawsuits were killed in a Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday.

One would have given unusually broad protections to the manufacturers of any product – though specifically drugs – that had been approved by government regulators such as the FDA. The other provision limited claims involving asbestos exposure.

As the two-hour meeting unfolded, clear divisions emerged between lawyers and non-lawyers on the committee. Halfway through, committee chairman Sen. Buck Newton, a Republican lawyer from Wilson, contradicted comments from industry and product liability defense speakers, who said the bill wouldn’t give companies immunity from lawsuits.

“This bill would immunize any of the products manufactured, whether pharmaceutical or otherwise,” Newton said. “… We’re talking about folks without means. Those are the kinds of things this committee needs to take into account as to how this bill would help North Carolinians. I’ve heard no testimony yet about how this creates jobs for North Carolina. I don’t hear what the pros are.”

Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican lawyer from Wilmington, said the legislature has done a good job overhauling lawsuits over the past few years, but this bill – SB648 – goes too far.

“These folks are in here today asking us to let them off scott-free,” Goolsby said. “It’s giving a pass to huge corporations just because some government bureaucrat says it’s OK for now. When we do that, somebody pays the price. And the person who pays the price is the innocent consumer. We do this, civil justice has made a step back to the Dark Ages.”

The other side of argument is that drug makers shouldn’t be held liable for every possible harmful effect that might occur when someone takes their products in the way that federal regulators say they should.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Republican lawyer from Concord, succeeded in removing that provision from the bill, along with one that would have restricted lawsuits against asbestos manufacturers. In its place, the bill would establish a committee to study the need for product liability reforms.

Other GOP senators on the committee weren’t happy about losing the product liability provision. There was speculation that it could emerge in another bill before the session is over.

The bill goes next to the Senate Finance Committee.

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