John Stossel

Imagine if an evil business routinely deprived us of products that would help us live longer with less pain and more comfort. We'd be outraged, and lawyers would line up to sue. Yet something similar happens today, thanks to lawsuit abuse. Makers of all kinds of products are afraid to sell them to us because one lawsuit could ruin them.

Personal-injury lawyers claim they make America safer, but that's a myth. It's easy to see who benefits from those big damage awards we read about. Less obvious -- but just as real -- are the things we'd all like to have but never will get because of this climate of fear. Here are a few examples.

Monsanto once developed a substitute for asbestos -- a new fire-resistant form of insulation that might save thousands of lives. But Monsanto decided not to sell it for fear of liability. Richard F. Mahoney, the CEO at the time, said, "There may well have been a safe, effective asbestos replacement on the market, and now there isn't."

Why do we have to worry about shortages of flu vaccine? Because only a handful of companies still make it. And why is that? Because when you vaccinate millions of people, some get sick and sue. Between 1980 and 1986, personal-injury lawyers demanded billions of dollars from vaccine manufacturers. That scared many American drug companies out of the business.

In 1986, Congress stepped in. To help curb the lawsuits that discouraged vaccine production, the government established a fund called the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It would pay victims' families directly so they wouldn't have to hire lawyers and suffer the delays of litigation. This was supposed to entice vaccine makers back into production, but drug companies were still leery, fearing that plaintiffs' lawyers would sue them anyway.

They were right to worry. Eli Lilly developed a mercury-based preservative called Thimerosal that was used in many children's vaccines. Plaintiffs' lawyers jumped on scaremongers' claims that mercury causes autism in children. Although a government-issued review found no such link, more than 100 autism lawsuits have been filed against vaccine makers since the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Act passed. No wonder most drug manufacturers still steer clear of vaccine research.

Even when new vaccines are discovered, drug companies are sometimes afraid to sell them. The FDA has approved a vaccine against Lyme disease. Want some? Forget about it. No company wants to take the risk.

Fear of being sued reduced the number of American companies researching contraceptives from 13 to two.

After scientifically groundless lawsuits against breast-implant makers bankrupted Dow Corning, Japanese silicone makers stopped producing a pain-reducing silicone coating for hypodermic needles. A company director said, "We're sure our product is safe, but we don't want to risk a lawsuit."

Union Carbide has invented a small portable kidney dialysis machine. It would make life much easier for people with kidney disease, but Union Carbide won't sell it. With legal sharks circling, the risk of expensive lawsuits outweighs the possible profit.

Are you pregnant and nauseous? Bendectin would probably cure your morning sickness. For 27 years doctors prescribed the drug to 33 million women because it was so good at stopping nausea and vomiting. But you can't buy Bendectin today because lawyers kept suing the manufacturer, Merrell Dow, claiming the drug caused birth defects.

Studies did not show that Bendectin caused birth defects, and Merrell Dow won most of the lawsuits. But after spending $100 million in legal fees and awards, the company gave up selling the drug. Bendectin has never been effectively replaced, and morning sickness is now a major contributor to dehydration during pregnancy.

Dr. Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says, "Within two years of discontinuing Bendectin, the incidence of hospitalization for dehydration during early pregnancy doubled; the incidence of birth defects was unchanged."

Those are just some of the life-enhancing products we know we must do without because America's peculiar legal system makes it profitable for trial lawyers to pursue extortion -- like litigation. What wonderful products will we never even hear about because the lawyers have created a climate of fear?


John Stossel

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at >johnstossel.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. ©Creators Syndicate