When I was 10 years old, the basement of our house flooded late at night in the midst of a Biblical summer rainfall. The cops and fire trucks where there, and as my parents tell it, we were really close to having to evacuate if the water rose any further. It didn't. We children slept right through it. Our parents decided not to wake us up, and we never really knew how close to a life upheaval we were facing.
Stuff goes on in Washington in much the same way, I think. Business groups have their associations and lobbying organizations that defend their business interests against the flood of potentially harmful legislation. We trust our protectors are doing their job, and we're often too busy in our own business lives to know exactly what went down--but we're safe, for now.
This week there was a new challenge to repeal the Graves Amendment, the law passed as part of the Highway Bill in 2005 that repealed vicarious liability in all 50 states. An amendment sponsored by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) had been proposed to the 2010 Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which was scheduled to be heard on Thursday by the House Energy & Commerce Committee.
If the Braley Amendment is to be adopted, vicarious liability would hold renting and leasing companies responsible for the acts of their customers, even if the renting or leasing company was not negligent.
For the uninformed: What did vicarious liability, specifically unlimited vicarious liability, mean in the real world? Remember Yankees' baseball manager Billy Martin? Martin and a friend had been drinking heavily. The friend drove off the road and skidded 300 feet down into a gully, killing Martin. The friend was convicted of drunk driving. Martin's widow sued Ford Motor Credit--the owner of the car--and got a multi-million dollar settlement. That is only one infamous case.
Most states instituted caps on vicarious liability of reasonable payout amounts, such as $35,000. But in states that had unlimited vicarious liability, such as New York, leasing came to a virtual standstill in the early 2000s when insurance providers and manufacturers' captive financiers pulled out. No one wanted to do business a state that exposed you to billions in liability for the negligent acts of drivers operating mechanically sound vehicles.
Of course those multi-million dollar payouts are a sweet deal for trial lawyers. Braley, by the way, is the former president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association.
Graves abolished that nonsense, though challenges have been mounted in its wake. The Braley amendment is the latest such challenge. You would not have heard about it, yet, because on Thursday the amendment ultimately was not heard by the committee. The troops were marshaled, and they did their job well.
Associations such as the Truck Renting and Leasing Association, the American Car Rental Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Trucking Associations "brought out the dogs" to educate legislators on the harm repealing Graves would do.
To look at intricate email strings many pages long is to get a glimpse of the work these organizations do to defeat bad legislation. Most of the time, we remain unawares.
However, this fight is not over, far from it. The Braley amendment may be introduced to this bill again, as early as next week. These organizations are busy continuing the fight.
Stay tuned. If and when it comes down again, we'll wake you up.