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Top Democrat spurns new Y2K liability bill

Despite revising a bill that would limit litigation arising from the Y2K bug, Sen. John McCain fails to quell criticism that the legislation goes too far.

Despite revising a bill that would limit litigation arising from the Year 2000 technology problem, Sen. John McCain hasn't quelled criticism by Democrats and consumer protection advocates that the proposed legislation goes too far.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), a leading Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, is one of several legislators who still find fault with the bill.

"It's still something we can't sign off on," said one of Dodd's staffers. "It still has caps."

Crafted by the Republican McCain, who is chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), also a member of the Commerce committee, the bill would curb so-called millennium bug suits against computer, software, and other technology companies. Back to Year 2000 Index Page As demanded by Wyden and other Democrats, the new bill would give small business owners and consumers more leeway in court if the glitch strikes their computers next January 1.

At Wyden's urging, the new bill would also lift a current bill's cap of $250,000 maximum damages in cases of fraud where a company "intended to injure the plaintiff," an aide said. For other Y2K lawsuits, however, the cap on damages would remain in place, Reuters reported earlier.

In addition, if a company refused to address a serious Y2K-related problem, its consumers could file suit after 30 days, rather than wait a full 90-day "cooling off" period.

McCain also agreed to remove a controversial provision that would protect companies as long as they made a "reasonable effort" to fix a Y2K problem. Aides said that language was dropped because it was too vague, Reuters reported.

Dodd, as well as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, has introduced competing legislation. As requested by the White House, Dodd's bill does not include any caps.

Aides said McCain and Wyden were shopping their bill around to other lawmakers, and planned to bring it to the full Senate for a vote as early as next week.

McCain's earlier bill won broad Republican support, but drew fire from the Clinton administration and many Democrats, who complained it gave too much protection to companies at the expense of consumers. Democrats vehemently objected to the provision in the original McCain bill capping punitive damages to $250,000 for many businesses.

Like Dodd, consumer advocates still have problems with McCain's revised bill.

"In our view?it still remains a bill that looks to unfairly limit liability to those who deserve" legal recourse, said John Cameron, a spokesman for Chicago-based Campaign for Consumer Protection.

Cameron's group finds fault with all the bills currently before Congress because, it feels, they contain provisions that would give unprecedented immunity to manufacturers of defective products and deprive businesses and individuals harmed by Y2K failures of the opportunity to fully recover their losses.

McCain defends his bill, saying in a statement that Y2K should not be an excuse for opportunistic lawyers to swamp the legal system at the expense of consumers. "Most consumers and small businesses owners want their products and equipment to work; they don't want to be tied up in costly and time-consuming litigation."

McCain said the revised bill would attack the Y2K problem by encouraging companies to direct their resources to solving Y2K problems, so that January 1, 2000, is a nonevent.

In related news, on the eve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 50-year anniversary celebration in Washington, Dodd and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000, today warned top NATO officials that inattention to the Y2K computer glitch could jeopardize ongoing and future peacekeeping operations and asked the organization to address Y2K at the NATO summit tomorrow.