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News Briefs, part 1

Court to Hear Veteran's Challenge

The Washington Post

The Supreme Court Monday agreed to hear a challenge to a ruling that the Department of Veterans Affairs fears will overrun it with costly medical claims.

For at least 55 years the VA has denied benefits to thousands of veterans who say they were injured during the course of treatment at its facilities. The department has held that only individuals who can prove their care either was faulty or that they were harmed accidentially should be entitled to government benefits.

Last September, in a ruling that stunned senior VA officials, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit rejected the department's argument, saying that the VA had by regulation twisted "the plain language" of a 1924 law. The court declared that Congress clearly wanted the VA to provide benefits to its patients regardless of whether any fault or accident could be proved.

The consequences of the ruling, if the Supreme Court lets it stand, could be huge for the VA, which for decades has run the largest hospital system in the country and has had virtually no legal scrutiny of its regulations. Worried about the ruling's fiscal impact, the Clinton administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the cost to taxpayers could be "approximately $1 billion over the next five years."

As many as 6,000 veterans have claims pending against the department and the VA initially said they could run as high as $5 billion over several years. That figure was lowered, after veterans groups complained that the department had overstated the cost.

It is expected the court will rule on the dispute during the first half of 1995.

Court to Decide Whether Air Travelers Can Seek Damages

The Washington Post

The Supreme Court Monday announced it would decide whether disgruntled air travelers can seek money damages in state courts when airlines change the rules for frequent flyer benefits.

A ruling on whether the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act pre-empts state complaints on frequent flyer benefits could affect numerous other grievances that air passengers have brought to state courts in recent years, for example, when they have been involuntarily bumped from crowded planes.

The current lawsuit, American Airlines vs. Wolens , was brought by members of American's frequent flyer club, known as the "AAdvantage Program." They allege that when American, in 1988, retroactively modified the rules for members' use of their frequent flyer miles, the airline reduced the value of the credits, breached its contracts and defrauded AAdvantage members. They sued under an Illinois consumer fraud and deceptive practices law seeking damages for losses as well as and punitive damages.

Rejecting American Airlines attempts to get the case dismissed, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled last year that the frequent flyer claims do not relate to the rates, routes or services of an airline, which federal law governs.

"A frequent flyer program is not an essential element to the operation of an airline," the state court held. "Indeed, the airline industry functioned successfully for decades prior to providing incentives to its travelers in the form of frequent flyer programs."

Mexican Government Says at Least Seven People Were Involved In Assassination of Candidate

The Washington Post

The Mexican government announced Monday that at least seven people were involved in the March 23 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio and that more than one gunman may have opened fire.

Special government investigator Miguel Montes Garcia said that in addition to the accused gunman, Mario Aburto Martinez, at least four individuals have been charged as conspirators in the killing of Colosio while he campaigned in the border city of Tijuana. Two other alleged accomplices remain at large, Montes reported.

No motive has surfaced for the killing, but the announcement Monday was likely to buttress beliefs of a political motivation rather than the deranged-killer version put out by the government until now.

As candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has not lost a presidential election since 1929, Colosio's election to the presidency was virtually assured.