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Senate Measure May Shift Liability For Sports Injuries to Schools

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Washington--A Senate subcommittee last month completed its hearings on a bill that experts say could shift some of the responsibility for serious injuries in interscholastic competition from manufacturers of athletic products to school officials.

An identical version of the product-liability bill was favorably reported out of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation last year but it never came to a vote on the Senate floor. The Reagan Administration has backed the measure.

The bill, S44, is sponsored by Senator Robert W. Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the panel's consumer subcommittee. There are 10 co-sponsors.

The House of Representatives has not considered similar legislation. Representative James T. Broyhill, Republican of North Carolina and the ranking minority member of the body's Energy and Commerce Committee, has endorsed the Kasten bill.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (sgma) has lobbied over the last decade for the passage of a national liability bill. The orga-nization's officials say that federal standards are required if manufacturers are to survive what they say is an increasing number of lawsuits.

Experts on athletic injuries say that manufacturers of sporting goods, especially producers of football helmets and trampolines, have been the target of most lawsuits when athletes are injured.

'Comparative Fault'

The key to product-liability reform, therefore, according to sgma officials, is determining "comparative fault" for injuries. The term refers to assigning responsibility for the product's performance to everyone who is involved in its production or use.

The Kasten bill, which applies to all products that are a part of interstate commerce, states that everyone involved with the product should have a "percentage of responsibility" for its use and thus share liability in the event of a lawsuit.

Officials at the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Federation of State High School Associations declined to comment on the measure.

Warren S. Brown, the assistant director of the federation, said that both manufacturers and school districts have been the "unfair" targets of litigation.

Richard T. Ball, a lawyer who has represented the Rydell Company in product-liability cases involving the football helmets produced by the firm, said that the large amount of litigation directed against manufacturers "threatens the future of athletics in schools."

Unless legal standards for product-liability are clarified for schools and athletic-equipment manufacturers, said Delbert C. Humphrey, the retired president of Schutt Manufacturing Co., "high-school football will be ruined."

Mr. Humphrey and other proponents of the bill say that it would set national standards for the safety of products--superseding what they say is a "crazy quilt" of regional and state legal standards that offers little guidance to the maker or buyer of products.

"The problem is not the equipment, and it never has been equipment,'' said C. Thomas Ross, a lawyer who has studied the issue and is a contributor to the quarterly newsletter Sports and the Courts. "If there has been a problem, it has been with a failure to adequately warn of dangers."

"Most of the helmet injuries are not the fault of the helmet but of the teaching techniques of the coaches," said Mr. Ross.

If the bill's "comparative fault" language were applied in lawsuits, manufacturers would be held responsible if their products were made shabbily or they did not warn of possible injury that could result from a lack of care in using the product.

But legal standards of responsibility vary so widely, he added, that manufacturers are often the only ones that are certain to be held responsible for their actions. He noted than many jurisdictions exempt governmental bodies, including schools, from liability.

Maria Dennison, the director of the sgma's Washington office, told the committee last year that litigation had led to the closing of six of 13 sporting-goods manufacturing companies in recent years.

Detractors of the bill say that, even with the law, product liability would still be decided on a case-by-case basis. The National Conference of State Legislatures issued a statement saying that the bill is a "blatant assault" on the federalist system.

Among the organizations testifying in favor of the bill were the Product Liability Alliance, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Wholesale Distributors, and the American Corporate Counsel Association.

The American Bar Association, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the Consumer Federation of America, and Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona all testified against the bill.

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