Consumer advocate Ralph Nader called on California voters Friday to reject Proposition 51, the so-called "deep pockets" initiative, charging that the controversial June 3 ballot measure would prevent certain victims of toxic injuries from collecting their full compensation.
Nader brushed aside criticism that Proposition 51 opponents had used "scare tactics" in television commercials claiming that the measure would allow toxic polluters to escape payment of damage awards.
The difficulties of identifying which of many companies that use a given toxics dump may be responsible for an injury, Nader said, would make it "impossible" to present evidence to a jury on the percentage of damages that each defendant should be assessed. Assigning payment for non-economic damages according to degree of fault, rather than ability to pay, is the chief feature of Proposition 51.
The bitterly debated measure would change state law to limit payment of non-economic damages, such as for "pain and suffering," in multiple-defendant personal injury lawsuits to a co-defendant's share of the blame. Currently, a co-defendant with the insurance or wealth to do so can be made to pay all of an award even if only marginally to blame.
Nader appeared at a crowded news conference in Culver City two days after the latest California Poll showed Proposition 51 leading by a 3-1 margin among registered voters, with half the state's voters still undecided.
In embracing the opposition's toxics argument, Nader said that current law gives a major polluter no incentive to prove that a small gasoline station, for example, supplied some of the pollutants of a water supply. But passage of the initiative, he said, would encourage major polluters to point the finger at anyone who might be remotely responsible so that it would be "impossible" to show an accurate breakdown of fault to a jury.
"That's why (the proponents) want this so badly, because procedurally it dynamites the case for the plaintiff," Nader said. "It makes an impossible burden of proof to uphold."
A campaign source said Nader will soon appear in television ads assailing the initiative.