Van de Kamp Opposed to Prop. 51 : Says Measure Is Backed by and Would Aid Toxic Polluters

Times Staff Writers

Arguing that victims of toxic polluters will pay the price if Proposition 51 passes, Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp on Monday became the first statewide elected official to announce opposition to the June 3 ballot measure.

In the first of a series of anti-Proposition 51 television commercials scheduled to start today , Van de Kamp contends that “the chemical companies behind Proposition 51 say that toxic polluters who cause cancer should not be held fully accountable.”

A second commercial, using professional actors, shows an apparent illegal dumper insisting that, even if he is caught, “it won’t cost us much.”

At press conferences around the state to announce the support of Van de Kamp, a Democrat, and to unveil the advertisements, officials of Citizens Against Proposition 51 produced a list of 23 chemical and pharmaceutical firms that have donated $105,775 in support of the ballot measure. The document was intended to buttress the contention that passage would reduce the liability of polluters.


In a statement, Van de Kamp said he believes that passage of Proposition 51 would “yield neither lower insurance rates nor improved coverage for the people of this state.” Instead, he argued, the measure would benefit “toxic waste polluters, asbestos manufacturers and the like” by removing a strong economic deterrent to actions that endanger public health.

However, backers of the initiative--which would limit a defendant’s share of damages for pain and suffering in a liability suit--scoffed at the notion that Proposition 51 might encourage illegal dumping.

They said Proposition 51 would assure that those responsible pay only their fair share.

“If our esteemed attorney general is not a good enough lawyer to chase the assets of a company that would try something like that (illegal dumping), we’d better take a look at the abilities of the occupant of that office,” said Jack S. McDowell, news director for Taxpayers for Fair Responsibility, the pro-Proposition 51 organization.

The pro-initiative group has argued that, by putting some limits on damage payments, the measure would ease a growing insurance crisis facing local governments, as well as motorists, physicians and businesses. All these groups are experiencing rising rates and, in some cases, having no insurance coverage whatsoever.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, an opponent of Proposition 51, has made finding a solution to the state’s insurance woes one of his top legislative priorities.

But on Monday, after a briefing in Washington on the liability insurance crisis and other issues by congressional staffers and lobbyists, Brown and other California legislators expressed pessimism about finding a state solution to the problem.

“We’ve been told by the experts that you really can’t do any policy making until you have clear data,” the Speaker said, adding that the insurance industry has refused to open its books to public examination.


No ‘Overnight Panacea’

Accompanying Brown on what has become an annual lobbying trip to Washington was Sen. John F. Foran (D-San Francisco), author of unsuccessful legislation that became the model for Proposition 51. Foran said the ballot measure is “not an overnight panacea (to the insurance crisis). It tackles just a small part of a much bigger problem.”

Under existing state law, individuals awarded damages in a suit against two or more parties can collect the total amount from a single defendant if only one is able to pay. But those wanting to change this so-called “deep pockets” principle argue that local governments, and therefore taxpayers, often end up paying the bill in such cases because they have the deepest pockets of wealth.

The ballot measure would leave intact an injured person’s ability to recover the full amount of actual economic losses, such as medical expenses and lost wages, from whichever defendants are able to pay. But payments for pain and suffering and other non-economic damages would be divided among the responsible parties in proportion to their share of the blame.


Because the cost of insurance to local government agencies, schools and others has been rising dramatically in recent years, some officials, including Gov. George Deukmejian and state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, are supporting the initiative. Deukmejian’s likely opponent in the general election, Democratic Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles, is opposed to the proposal.

Paul Jacobs reported from Sacramento and Douglas Shuit reported from Washington.