SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Spacecraft operators and manufacturers, along with their parts and services suppliers, will be shielded in New Mexico from most damage lawsuits by passengers on space tourism flights under a proposal touted as a compromise between trial lawyers and the fledgling space travel industry.
Supporters of the measure say it should help New Mexico remain competitive in a race with Florida, Texas and other states to become a hub for commercial space travel.
New Mexico has spent more than $200 million to develop a spaceport in southern New Mexico that British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to use to take tourists into outer space for $200,000-a-ticket.
Virgin Galactic and representatives of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association negotiated the compromise proposal, which was unveiled this week.
"When we sat down with Virgin Galactic and they laid out what they needed and we laid out what our concerns were, it turns out we weren't all far apart," Ray Vargas, president of the state's trial lawyers Wednesday.
He said Democratic legislative leaders had nudged both sides to the bargaining table.
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a statement that the company supported a liability law change "that helps maintain Spaceport America's leadership in the commercial space sector."
He previously had hinted that the company might leave New Mexico and its Spaceport America if the Legislature didn't revise the legal liability limitations offered to the commercial space industry.
A 2010 state law shielded Virgin Galactic from being sued, except under certain circumstances, for damages by passengers or their families if there was an accident and the passengers had signed a form warning them of the risks of space travel.
However, the lawsuit protections didn't cover the suppliers and manufacturers of spacecraft parts and components. The compromise proposal changes that, putting them on the same footing as a space flight operator like Virgin Galactic.
"The operator can only be sued if they knew or should have known that there was a defect or dangerous condition or if they acted in a willful or reckless manner. Those are very difficult limited circumstances, but they don't foreclose a suit," said Vargas.
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