As Congress begins considering sweeping reform of the nation's legal system, at least one element of the package is already in place and shaping the practice of law in Maryland.
"The big outcry is, 'They have to do something about punitive damages,' " said Paul D. Bekman, a Baltimore plaintiffs attorney and former president of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association. "Well, in Maryland they have done something about it."
Not that Mr. Bekman or others who represent plaintiffs in product liability and medical malpractice cases like what has been done.
They complain that a landmark state court ruling has all but eliminated punitive damage awards in Maryland -- and, they say, corporate accountability for dangerous behavior.
They fear that changes proposed by the Republicans' "Contract with America" could do more of the same.
On the other hand, lawyers who represent manufacturers, doctors and insurers point to a 1992 Maryland Court of Appeals ruling as a step forward in largely removing the prospect of devastating judgments for all but the most reprehensible corporate wrongdoing. They are eager to preserve the change and to see similar proposals enacted nationally.
The division of opinion on the punitive damages issue -- along with a similar split over the wisdom of Maryland's $500,000 cap on "noneconomic" damages in civil suits -- underscores the lines of debate over the proposed national reforms.
Supporters say the proposed changes in federal law would reduce the costs inflicted on society by an inefficient and unfair system driven out of control by litigation. Opponents see a veiled effort to insulate big business from lawsuits brought by aggrieved ordinary Americans.
When Baltimore lawyers assess the implications of the GOP plan, it doesn't take them long to mention "Zenobia," the 1992 case that changed the rules for pursuing punitive damages in Maryland.
Citing a proliferation of "extremely high" punitive damage awards, the court raised the standards to require "clear and convincing evidence" that the defendant wasn't merely recklessly indifferent, but that he or she acted with "actual malice" -- that is, intentionally injured someone or willingly turned a blind eye toward potential dangers.
Since then, plaintiffs lawyers say, the odds of obtaining a punitive damage award in a Maryland court have been virtually insurmountable. They complain that even drunken drivers who kill can't be held liable for punitive damages and that companies have a green light to market dangerous wares with little fear of expensive judgments.
Paul A. Tiburzi, a lawyer from the Baltimore firm of Piper & Marbury who lobbies the General Assembly on behalf of some of the city's largest businesses, said his clients would likely support a cap on punitive damages and other elements of the Republican plan. But he said that business support is lukewarm at best for a proposal to require the loser to pay a major share of the winner's attorney's fees.
While advocates for tort reform at the national level are pressing hard because they see victory within reach, a cease-fire has been declared in the fight over legal reform in Maryland's General Assembly.
Lobbyists on both sides of the issue are monitoring state appellate court rulings that could affect the punitive damages issue.
Also, in part because the General Assembly contains so many new members, legislative leaders say that action on legal issues will have to wait until next year.
"The Court of Appeals will state what they think the law is," said Michael Gisriel, a lobbyist for the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association. "The legislature can have the final word."