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Another lawsuit that's way off the mark

I cannot imagine a family tragedy worse than the death of a child. As parents, we work to pass on a brighter future to our children, and when that dream is destroyed by a child's death, our world is turned upside down.

In that light, I can understand why the parents of Olympia peace activist Rachel Corrie are suing over their daughter's death. I cannot say the same for their lawyers.

23-year old Rachel Corrie died in March 2003 as she tried to block an Israeli soldier from bulldozing the home of a suspected Palestinian terrorist. The Israelis say she fell and the driver didn't see her. Activists say Corrie was intentionally run over.

The Corrie family sued the Israeli government over their daughter's death. But in a move that surprised - one which puzzled many - the family also filed a lawsuit against Caterpillar, the American company that built the bulldozer.

Lawyers in the case say Caterpillar bears partial responsibility for Corrie's death because company officials knew that the Israelis were using some of their bulldozers to demolish homes of suspected terrorists, or as the attorneys see it, to commit human rights abuses. In their view, Caterpillar should be held accountable in much the same way as World War II chemical manufacturers were found complicit for knowingly selling poisons to the Nazis that were used in the Holocaust.

The Corries have a perfect right to make a claim against Israel over their daughter's death, but their lawsuit against Caterpillar is off the mark. In essence, they are asking a company that manufactures tens of thousands of machines each year to be responsible for how three or four of those machines might be used.

Based on that principle, should we hold automakers responsible for manufacturing snazzy cars that appeal to young people who then injure or kill themselves in street races? If a convicted murderer who has served his time buys a kitchen knife, should the knife manufacturer be held responsible if that person then uses the knife to kill someone?

Obviously, holding a company liable for how a purchaser misuses a product is an unreasonable standard. U.S. companies are already crippled by liability insurance and nuisance lawsuits, resulting in stupid warning labels like the ones on wood chippers warning people not to put their hands in the blades while they're running.

These lawsuits - and the fear of getting sued - raise insurance rates and increase the price of our products, making it more difficult for American producers to compete worldwide.

Any product can be misused, and the blame lies with those who misuse it - not the company that made it.

The truth is, anything can be used as a weapon. Even as airport security screeners confiscate pen knives and sharp objects, the fact is you can kill somebody with a pencil. Are we going to hold companies responsible for that, as well?

Obviously, Rachel Corrie's death was a tragedy, but trying to hold the Caterpillar Company responsible is a travesty.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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