Bills permitting asbestos-cleanup suits advance

March 15, 1991|By David Conn | David Conn,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Two General Assembly committees brought state and local governments a step closer yesterday to broader rights to sue asbestos manufacturers for the cost of removing the cancer-causing material from government buildings.

That tentative step came when House and Senate committees voted in favor of their respective versions of a bill that would alter the state law on property damage lawsuits.

The current law, called the statute of repose, is intended to give building manufacturers relief from the threat of lawsuits 20 years from the date the building becomes available for use.

The asbestos lawsuits most affected by the bills which passed the House Judiciary and the Senate Judicial Proceedings committees yesterday are those filed by state and local governments seeking damages for the cost of removing asbestos from their buildings.

Under current law, a building manufacturer cannot be sued for damages more than 20 years after the building opens for use.

The proposed changes would extend a governmental entity's right to sue under the statute of repose back to buildings completed in 1953, but only if the lawsuit is filed before July 1, 1993.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who sponsored the bills, vetoed a similar bill last year. At the time he promised to study the issue before this legislative session.

"It was one of the governor's most difficult vetoes, and he did promise to come up with a compromise," said David Iannucci, Mr. Schaefer's chief legislative officer.

Mr. Iannucci had worked for more than nine months to draft a bill that wasn't too onerous to former asbestos manufacturers but still served the needs of governmental entities. The legislation also would allow lawsuits by a small class of individuals whose claims were barred by a recent court decision.

The House committee accepted the bill with only minor changes, but the Senate panel made three amendments; to move the date back to 1950; to allow cases to be revived if they had been dismissed only on partial summary judgment, rather than final judgment; and to include private schools under the protections of the statute. The differences would have to be worked out in a conference committee, assuming the bills pass their respective houses.

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