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WASHINGTON - One little-noticed step at a time, bureaucrats in the Bush administration since 2005 have adopted dozens of rules that limit the lawsuits Americans can file against corporations over the faulty products they produce.

President Bush has campaigned for lawsuit reform since his days as Texas governor. As president, he has made little headway on the issue in Congress. He's been thwarted by Democrats every time he's tried to tackle the issue head-on.

The lawsuit limits have been included in more than 50 rules proposed or adopted by government agency after government agency covering everything from food to drugs and medical devices to cars.

Welcomed by industry and criticized by consumer advocates, the agencies' use of the government's rule-making authority represents the administration's final act in a long-standing drive to shield companies from lawsuits.

Of the 51 regulations, 41 came from the Food and Drug Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.

Ten of 15 federal traffic safety regulations from last year have been finalized by NHTSA and are in force or soon will be, a development that has gotten minimal public attention.

Underlying this bureaucratic version of lawsuit reform is the concept of federal pre-emption - a legal idea that is hard to build widespread public interest in.

Rooted in the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, federal pre-emption refers to circumstances in which federal law and regulation trump state law, in this instance state laws that govern when one person may be held liable for another's injury.

Frequently filed in state courts, where juries often are more receptive to plaintiffs' claims against corporations, product liability lawsuits are often moved at the request of business defendants to more restrictive federal courts.

Regardless of where the suits end up, the issue is increasingly whether companies can use broad pre-emption language in regulatory preambles to get cases thrown out.

The preambles are the agencies' interpretation of whether the federal regulatory law permits pre-emption of lawsuits. An expansive interpretation of pre-emption leaves little room for consumers to sue, and that is what the national trial lawyers group, the American Association for Justice, says is taking place.

If the rulemaking at the agencies had been a centralized effort in the White House or the Justice Department, ''it would have failed because immediately everybody would have mobilized resistance,'' said Michael Greve of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

Limits on lawsuits have been ordered or proposed for drug labeling and packaging - one issue that received a big airing last week because of a case involving actor Dennis Quaid's newborn twins - and for rules ranging from mattress flammability standards to school bus passenger seating to dietary sweeteners and roof-crush requirements in car rollovers.

Jon Haber, AAJ's chief executive officer, says the agencies are engaging in ''a brazen end run around Congress, the Constitution and the states in an effort to let negligent corporations off the hook and knowingly put consumers at risk.''

The real-world effect of pre-emption was display last Wednesday when a congressional committee heard from Quaid and his wife, who have sued a maker of the blood thinner heparin in Illinois state court.

The Quaids sued after their newborn twins were given massive doses of the blood thinner at a hospital. The Quaids claim the manufacturer was negligent in packaging different doses of the product in similar vials with blue backgrounds.

The company - Baxter Healthcare Corp. - is seeking to use the doctrine of pre-emption to shield it from any civil liability, claiming that once FDA approved the labeling and packaging at issue in the case, the company is immune from civil suits for money damages.

Joan Claybrook, former head of NHTSA during the Carter administration, says her former agency is using regulatory preambles in a campaign against lawsuits.

''What the companies want is complete immunity, and the regulators in the Bush administration are helping them,'' said Claybrook, who directs the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

NHTSA officials deny that the agency has designed rules to undercut lawsuits.

''After considering both the purposes of each safety rulemaking and possible state actions that might arise, in most cases we have concluded that there are no identified factual situations that would create a conflict or frustrate federal objectives,'' the agency said in a statement. ''We cannot, however, rule out the possibility that such a factual situation might arise in the future.''

Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck calls NHTSA's position ''mumbo jumbo that understates considerably the language in the preambles.''

''The preambles say that, in the future, once the NHTSA rule takes effect, the agency believes that the rule should have the effect of displacing state tort law,'' said Vladeck.

FDA officials echo NHTSA's position.

''The preambles to these rules do not seek to pre-empt, but instead describe the scope of pre-emption under operation of federal law,'' said FDA spokesman Rita Chappelle.

Later this year, the Supreme Court will wade into the issue of federal pre-emption as it relates to lawsuits and prescription drug labeling. The defendant drugmaker contends it should not be in the lawsuit because the FDA had approved the warning label on the drug.

The company is trying to overturn a $6.8 million award given a woman whose arm had to be amputated after anti-nausea medication was inadvertently injected into an artery.

In some instances, judges seem as exercised as consumer advocates about the FDA's undermining of lawsuits under state tort law.

In a recent decision, a federal appeals court judge wrote that the FDA has for over three-quarters of a century viewed state tort law as complementary to the agency's safety warnings on prescription drug packages and ''only for the last two years has it claimed otherwise.''

The judge, Thomas Ambro, was dissenting from a ruling by two of his colleagues throwing out lawsuits in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The allegations in the suits against pharmaceutical companies linked two suicides to antidepressants.

Judges have cited FDA's regulatory preamble in its prescription drug rule in more than a dozen favorable rulings for pharmaceutical companies. Despite the FDA frequently showing up on the side of industry, judges have ruled for consumers' right to sue about as often as they have ruled against them in cases touching on the regulatory preamble for prescription drug labels.

One expert in the field says the trend may be shifting to industry's favor, in part because of the FDA's regulatory preamble.

''The last four or five cases, industry has been on a roll,'' says Chicago attorney Mark Herrmann, who defends pharmaceutical companies in liability cases.

How the rules evolve

A glance at key phrases from two National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations and changes in language relating to pre-empting lawsuits.

Dec. 14, 2004: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards: Head restraints.

* ''The final rule is not intended to pre-empt state tort civil actions.''

May 4, 2007: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards: Head restraints - final rule.

* ''Federal pre-emption questions can arise both in the courts' application of state common law - often state tort law - or in the application of a state statute or state or local regulation, ordinance or similar measure. In a state tort suit, the question may be whether imposing liability for particular activities would be consistent or inconsistent with federal law or a federal regulatory program.''

Dec. 27, 2002: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards: Platform lift systems for accessible motor vehicles - final rule.

* ''The final rule is not intended to pre-empt state tort civil actions.''

Dec. 20, 2007: Federal motor vehicle safety standards: Platform lifts for motor vehicles; Platform lift installations in motor vehicles - proposed rule.

* ''In addition to the express pre-emption noted above, the Supreme Court has also recognized that state requirements imposed on motor vehicle manufacturers, including sanctions imposed by state tort law, can stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of a NHTSA safety standard. When such a conflict is discerned, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution makes their state requirements unenforceable. See Geier v. American Honda Motor Co. (2000). NHTSA has not outlined such potential state requirements in today's rulemaking, however, in part because such conflicts can arise in varied contexts, but it is conceivable that such a conflict may become clear through subsequent experience with today's standard and test regime. NHTSA may opine on such conflicts in the future, if warranted.''