SANTA FE – An effort to exempt spacecraft manufacturers from legal liability in case space flight passengers are injured was grounded Tuesday by committees in both the House and Senate.
Without recommendations for further consideration in either chamber, the proposal intended to attract aerospace parts manufacturers to New Mexico’s Spaceport America will likely be shelved until 2013, said Rep. James White, R-Albuquerque, sponsor of the House version, HB 239.
“It probably means it’s dead. It takes a lot of support to get it pulled off the table and heard again. Plus, we’re running out of time,” White said after the House Business and Industry Committee voted 6-5 to put the bill on hold Tuesday afternoon with no discussion. Earlier in the day, the Senate Judiciary Committee took no action on an identical bill, SB 3, after a two-hour debate.
The 30-day session is scheduled to end Feb. 16.
Spaceport America officials have requested the extra legal protection through 2018, saying it’s necessary to attract new aerospace component suppliers to establish their operations near Las Cruces at the developing Spaceport. Officials say at least two major companies may otherwise choose to open shop in Texas, Florida or Virginia, where parts manufacturers are not held liable for death or injury when their products malfunction during commercial space travel.
“This is the leveling of that playing field between those states,” said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority, the state agency that operates the Spaceport and is responsible for recruiting new tenants.
The lack of legislative support Tuesday “means our job is going to be very difficult over the next 12 months,” she said. “I hate to think we might lose some (new companies), but I’m probably going to lose some.”
A 2010 law already limits legal liability for companies like Virgin Galactic that will operate flights from the Spaceport, but does not include companies that build parts for Virgin’s spacecraft.
Several lawmakers, however, argued that any extension of legal protection for manufacturers could allow those companies to act recklessly to reduce costs for their spacecraft parts and materials and potentially create unnecessary hazards for space travelers now being billed about $200,000 for a trip reaching just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.
The extended legal protection would still allow passengers to sue if they prove manufacturers knowingly created a faulty product and used it anyway, according to the bills.
Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque, said the legal protections for consumers are something he is not willing to “water down” to help recruit new aerospace businesses to New Mexico.
“We just have to, at some point, say we want you here, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” Griego said. “There’s some basic things we just can’t negotiate.”
The proposal has drawn sharp opposition from the state Trial Lawyers Association, which claims it would grant manufacturers “essential immunity” that is unprecedented in New Mexico.
“Are you really going to suspend the rule of law for the sake of hypothetical economic development?” asked David J. Jaramillo, past president of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association. Senate Judiciary Committee member Lisa Curtis, who voted against the proposal, served as a president of the group until she was appointed to the Legislature this session.
Supporters of the proposal said the extra protection for manufacturers is an important part of supporting an innovative industry in which safety standards have not yet been established.
“This is a much higher risk from the engineering perspective and the unknowns. … That’s why the component manufacturers need a higher standard (of legal protection) because they maybe are manufacturing things at a known standard they think is safe, and if it fails in an unknown environment or a very seldom visited environment, the allegation will be it’s negligence,” said Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque.
Although passengers would not be allowed to sue under the proposal without proof of “gross negligence,” nonpassengers who suffer property damage or other kind of harm related to malfunctioning spacecraft could still seek legal recourse.
Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, who sponsored the Senate version of the liability bill, SB 3, said she was disappointed by the committee votes Tuesday.
“We should be giving this another look and seeing what we’re giving up,” she said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal