Lawsuits possible in cases of 'reckless disregard' for safety
Sen. Mary Kay Papen is optimistic that her proposal will become law
Space travelers paying $200,000 each for a two-hour flight originating in New Mexico would have the chance to sue manufacturers and suppliers if negligence caused a disaster.
That is the key concession from Spaceport America and its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, in a bill introduced Wednesday in the New Mexico State Senate.
The measure, Senate Bill 240, would allow for lawsuits in select circumstances. It is a compromise proposal after a year of disagreement about how much liability protection Spaceport companies should have.
A bill last year would have made it almost impossible to sue Spaceport suppliers and manufacturers.
That proposal died in both houses of the Legislature after its fundamental fairness was challenged.
Virgin Galactic began negotiations last summer with the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, which had fought the bill to essentially exempt Spaceport suppliers and manufacturers from lawsuits. Virgin Galactic already has protection from lawsuits under certain conditions.
The compromise bill is sponsored by high-ranking senators of both parties, Democrat Mary KayPapen of Las Cruces and Republican Stuart Ingle of Portales. Papen is president pro tem of the Senate and Ingle is the minority leader.
Their bill would not prevent or limit the liability of a space flight entity “in cases of wanton or reckless disregard for the safety” of space travelers.
It also would permit lawsuits when an “act or omission causes injury, damage or death” to a passenger.
Another section of the bill states that lawsuits also would be possible if an entity knows of or should have known of a dangerous condition “on the land or in the facilities or equipment used in the space flight activities...”
Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences in Sierra County, is a $209 million enterprise built with public money.
The bill on liability would require Spaceport companies to obtain insurance coverage of at least $1 million for all space flight activities.
Papen said Sen. Michael Sanchez, the majority leader and an attorney, worked to bring Virgin Galactic and the trial lawyers association to the negotiating table.
Last year, Sanchez was one of six Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee that voted to kill the bill to essentially protect Spaceport manufacturers and suppliers from lawsuits.
With Sanchez supporting the compromise bill, it has an excellent chance of passing the Senate, controlled by Democrats 25-17.
Democrat Ken Martinez, speaker of the House of Representatives, also has endorsed the bill. His party has a 38-32 advantage in the House.
But Papen said she expected wide bipartisan support for the bill, as evidenced by Republican Ingle agreeing to be a sponsor.
Still, the process is only beginning. The bill would have to clear both houses and be signed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez to become law.
Gov. Martinez said in her state of the state speech that the Spaceport had lost a company because of concerns about litigation. She said she wanted a Spaceport bill to stop “lawsuit abuse.”