Md. to revisit punitive damages reform

January 13, 1993|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

For those who like reruns, the state's business interests have a show for you: It's called the 1993 Maryland General Assembly, and it starts a 90-day run today in Annapolis.

The featured player is punitive damages reform, an issue that brought some of the largest companies in Maryland out in force last year -- to no avail. The companies tried to pass a bill to limit the exposure of defendants to punitive awards but lost at the hands of plaintiffs' attorneys and consumer groups.

"I think business is coming together, both large and small, to basically pick up where we left off last year on punitive damages," said Paul Tiburzi, a lobbyist who led a business coalition that fought for the reforms.

In addition to the procedural reforms his coalition backed last year and will push in the 405th General Assembly session, Mr. Tiburzi said his group would support a bill to place a dollar limit, probably $350,000, on punitive awards, or to link them to the size of compensatory damages.

This year, however, trial lawyers also will come armed with proposed legislation. These plaintiffs' attorneys likely will try to make it easier to win punitive damages by campaigning for a bill to reverse parts of a 1992 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that made the damages harder to win.

Another favorite from 1992, health care reform, has taken on greater prominence because of its role as a presidential campaign issue. Along with an attempt to craft a wide-ranging reform of the state's health care system, lawmakers will push a more modest effort to improve the access and affordability of health insurance, particularly for small businesses, a bill that Gov. William Donald Schaefer will sponsor, according to his legislative aides.

On another front, Governor Schaefer is expected to announce in his State of the State address this month a program of initiatives to help Maryland's ailing manufacturing base, although details could not be determined.

Physicians' groups are again expected to push for a ban on "physician self-referrals," in which a doctor refers patients to clinics owned by the doctor. The bill became entangled in a fight last year between radiation oncologists and an out-of-state radiation therapy company that set up shop in Maryland.

Even though it finally passed last year, a law requiring title companies to give up some of the interest they earn on client escrow accounts is expected to return this year.

The Maryland Affordable Housing Trust, the newly created recipient of title interest funds, is having a hard time administering the program, according to William Pitcher, a lobbyist for the title companies.

He said the industry would push for a repeal of the mandatory interest contributions, in favor of some alternative way to fund the trust, which supplies money for low-income housing.

Likewise, retailers and other business groups will push for the repeal of a few aspects of the 1992 tax package, according to Thomas Saquella, of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Prince George's County, has sponsored Senate Bill 1, which would repeal last year's law reducing the portion of sales taxes that retailers can keep to offset the cost of calculating the tax and getting it to the state on time.

One new face expected this year is a bill to require an analysis of the costs to small businesses of all proposed legislation. The state now produces only an analysis of the costs that bills might produce for the state and local governments.

Inspired by the concept, the Maryland Builders Association likely will ask for a similar bill to determine the potential impact of legislation on building homes and apartments.

"They, on the one hand, lament the loss of affordable housing," said Mr. Pitcher, who also represents the home builders group. "But, on the other hand, they're constantly passing legislation that increases the cost of housing."

Bankers will join with retailers and other installment lenders to support a bill that would clear up confusion about a Court of Appeals ruling last fall that threatened to void thousands of installment loans. The bill would clarify the duties of lenders and borrowers who do business under Maryland's consumer credit laws.

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