By Kent Hoover

Small businesses do not worry as much about liability lawsuits today as they did in the mid-1990s, according to a new NFIB Research Foundation poll.

Only 16 percent of the 750 small-business owners surveyed said they are "very" concerned about liability lawsuits. Another 31 percent indicated they were "somewhat" concerned. But 36 percent said they were "not too" concerned about lawsuits, and 17 percent were "not at all" concerned.

Those most worried about lawsuits cited their industry's vulnerability, fears they could be dragged into other parties' disputes and the overall number of legal filings.

Eleven percent of the small-business owners surveyed have been sued during the past five years, the same percentage reported in a similar liability lawsuit survey conducted in 1995. Nine out of 10 of these cases were settled out of court.

The most common types of liability lawsuits are product or professional liability cases and on-premise personal injury suits. Most plaintiffs are customers.

William Dennis, senior research fellow for the National Federation of Independent Business, cites several possible reasons why small businesses are less concerned about liability lawsuits than they were in the past.

"This might be because they are more worried about the economy, or because they have taken additional steps to limit their exposure," he says. "Changes in state liability laws may also be a factor."

On the federal level, Congress earlier this year passed legislation that exempts small businesses from Superfund cleanup lawsuits. But other tort reform legislation remains stalled, including a bill that would cap punitive damages against small businesses in liability lawsuits to $250,000.

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Bill introduced to protect workers' religious practices Employers would be required to "reasonably accommodate" an employee's religious practices under legislation introduced by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Santorum says the Workplace Religious Freedom Act takes a "sensible, balanced approach" by allowing restrictions on religious observances that pose an "undue hardship" on employers.

Kerry, who chairs the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, says the legislation would "protect the best of America's spiritual life even as we leave employers the flexibility they need to run their businesses."

"No worker should ever have to choose between keeping a job and keeping faith with their cherished religious beliefs," Kerry says.

The legislation is supported by religious organizations ranging from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Sikh Center.

The text of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act is available at

New EPA rules to encourage computer monitor recycling The Environmental Protection Agency hopes to encourage recycling of computer monitors by classifying reusable cathode ray tubes as products instead of waste.

This regulatory change would make it easier for companies to salvage lead-containing computer monitors instead of dumping them in landfills. The EPA estimates that more than 250 million computers will be retired from use over the next five years.

Glass removed from cathode ray tubes also would no longer be considered as waste as long as it is recycled. In addition, the EPA proposes streamlined regulations for mercury-containing equipment such as switches, barometers, meters, temperature gauges, pressure gauges and sprinkler system contacts.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman says the regulatory changes will "encourage more reuse and recycling, cut costs and reduce paperwork."

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Banks enjoy record earnings, but FDIC's 'problem list' grows Commercial banks earned record profits in the first quarter of 2002, despite rising loan losses, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Bank earnings totaled $21.7 billion in the first quarter, up 9.6 percent from the previous record set in the first quarter of 2001. The average return on assets was 1.33 percent, the third-highest ever.

Wider net interest margins at large banks, combined with slow growth in operating expenses, accounted for most of the earnings gain.

Nearly two-thirds of all commercial banks reported higher earnings than in the first quarter of 2001, but gains were lower at small banks.

Total loans at commercial banks fell for the first time in five years, and six FDIC-insured banks failed in the first quarter, the most since the third quarter of 1994. The number of banks on FDIC's "problem list" grew from 95 to 102.

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