Democrats in the Senate were nothing less than shameless the other day in killing a product liability bill that was utterly needed and, if anything, far too timid.

The Democrats, looking for some political advantage in the Republican-sponsored measure - and in their hearts apparently opposed to it even though President Clinton had signed on - came up with a gimmick that might fool some voters. They wanted to introduce amendments under the guise of a "Patients' Bill of Rights."Reform of product liability therefore appears dead for this year, and that's no boon to Americans. One published estimate has it that liability litigation costs the average household something like $1,000 a year. The fact that business can expect suits to come at them from left, right, above and below also stymies innovation and intervenes drastically in the course of commerce, sometimes accomplishing little more than to transfer wealth from producers to parasites.

The Senate bill would not have stopped the carnage. It would mostly have protected small businesses - those with no more than 25 employees - by saying punitive damages assessed against them could not be more than $250,000 or twice the cost of actual damages, whichever was less.