Trial lawyers, Virgin Galactic reach agreement on liability suits
Southern New Mexico’s $209 million Spaceport America is now be better positioned to attract businesses and space travelers because of a deal limiting liability in case of a crash, Democrat leaders in the Legislature said Tuesday afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez said Virgin Galactic, anchor tenant of the Spaceport, and the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association had come to an agreement after rounds of negotiations that started last summer.
Details were vague, but Sanchez said a bill outlining the liability limits would be ready for release Wednesday morning.
Sen. Mary Kay Papen, who will be one of the sponsors, said the bill would make New Mexico’s laws for limited liability for space travel similar to those in Colorado and Florida. This development means New Mexico will not be at a competitive disadvantage as it develops a space travel industry, she said.
Papen, D-Las Cruces, last year introduced a bill that essentially would have prevented space travelers or their survivors from filing negligence lawsuits against manufacturers or suppliers if a crash occurred.
Trial lawyers fought that bill, saying it would set a tone that companies could be immune from lawsuits, even if they did shoddy work or sold a dangerous product.
Papen’s original measure died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. A companion bill failed in the House of Representatives.
Afterward, Gov. Susana Martinez, Papen and other legislators said the Spaceport’s ability to compete would be imperiled without protections from lawsuits.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Sanchez was instrumental in getting representatives of Virgin Galactic and the trial lawyers to the negotiating table to reach an agreement.
Smith said Sanchez was being pummeled during last year’s campaign for supposedly hurting the Spaceport, based in Sierra County. In fact, Smith said, Sanchez led the way to resolve the disagreements.
Sanchez, D-Belen, right, said he did not partake in the negotiations, but spurred along the process. The two sides splintered but then came back together to reach an agreement, he said.
“It was difficult. There was nothing easy about it,” Sanchez said.
He, Papen and Smith announced the agreement with House Speaker Ken Martinez, also a Democrat. They said they were confident that Republican legislators and Gov. Martinez would find the new bill acceptable.
None of the legislators could say exactly what the bill would do.
But state Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said one thing is now assured because of the deal.
“There is no longer uncertainty in the market,” Maestas said.
Businesspeople thinking of building hotels or restaurants to position themselves for the day the Spaceport attracts tourists and fliers can now do so, Maestas said.
He said the bill limiting liability of suppliers or manufacturers would become effect July 1, but the settlement announcement now would give businesses confidence that the Spaceport has a secure future.