Y2K Problem? I'll Take You to Court! Maybe Not

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Let the chips fall where they may. So goes the American business creed of free and unfettered competition -- except when those chips are computer chips and could contain the seed of a Y2K lawsuit. Reacting to the fears of corporate America that the problems created by possible Y2K disruptions might set off an avalanche of lawsuits, a coalition of high-tech companies and business groups succeeded on Tuesday in convincing the Senate to pass an array of Y2K lawsuit curbs, mostly limiting how much could be paid out as damages. The measure will now go to a conference committee to hammer out differences with the House, which has adopted even stronger limitations.

"This measure is not only being driven by the high-tech industry," say TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "Business groups have wanted to limit tort liability for a long time," he says, "and they see the Y2K issue as a way of introducing the camelís nose into the tent." The President, hesitant to welcome that camel, has threatened to veto the measure, saying it would undercut the rights of ordinary citizens to sue if they are hurt, and might even discourage companies from being diligent with their computers. The President is supported by trial lawyers and consumer groups on this issue, but he risks alienating his friends in Silicon Valley if he sticks to his position. Republican strategists hope that the crosswinds the President faces on the issue, which already prompted a number of prominent Democrats to vote for the measure, will help lift the GOP cause in high-tech circles.