I wrote last month about the myth of strong federal regulation and we have had numerous comments on that part of the Report. Interestingly, a number of our readers were shocked to learn that our regulatory agencies do such a poor job of regulation. All who commented agreed, however, that strong federal regulation is critically important for the American people. Protecting consumers from hazards caused by dangerous product defects is the job required of federal regulators. Unfortunately, the various regulatory agencies, many of whom are underfunded and understaffed, fail in their responsibility to make sure that products are properly tested, evaluated and safe when put on the market. These agencies also have the job of promulgating strong safety standards. There also have been shortcomings in that area.
Our law firm has recently been involved in some major litigation involving first Toyota and now General Motors (GM) where cars with defects known to the automakers were put on the market. In each case, the defect was covered up by the companies for long periods of time. In each case, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did a poor job of regulating the companies. In each case, the automaker was well aware of how understaffed NHTSA was, which hampered its ability to adequately regulate. In each case, folks were put at risk and many died in highway crashes.
The important role of litigation in preventing injuries from unsafe products has been disputed by corporate tort-reform groups. The very same tort-reform groups that have fought to restrict product liability lawsuits are the same ones who worked just as hard to keep safety standards weak and regulatory agencies underfunded and understaffed. As the public is now learning, it has taken product liability litigation to expose defects across a wide range of products. Unfortunately, the automobile industry is not the only industry where regulation is weak. The drug and oil industries are well aware of how ineffective regulation of their industries has been. They have taken full advantage of that weakness and the Vioxx and BP litigations are prime examples of that fact.
In an ideal world, safety regulators would be able to identify and deal with every product defect in a prompt and efficient manner. But the reality is that regulatory agencies are chronically underfunded, understaffed and oftentimes hindered by slow-moving bureaucratic processes and resistance from the very industries they regulate. The bottom line is that product liability litigation will continue to make a decisive contribution in an area where the public’s interest must be protected. The American people have a vested interest in good and effective regulation. Safety must be a top priority with manufacturers and unfortunately self-regulation and weak regulation simply don’t get the job done.
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