Bill seeks to ease damages standard Angelos pushes proposal to aid asbestos clients

February 10, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Orioles owner and Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos is pushing a bill in the General Assembly that could mean millions of dollars for his clients who have suffered from exposure to asbestos.

The proposal would make it easier for plaintiffs to win punitive damage claims from corporations -- something trial lawyers say is nearly impossible today.

"What kind of state is this where companies -- no matter how outrageous their conduct -- don't have to answer?" said the bill's sponsor, Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

Mr. Pica is a former member of Mr. Angelos' law firm.

Opponents, however, argue that relaxing the damage standard would hurt Maryland businesses and force them to settle lawsuits they might not otherwise. Lobbyist Paul A. Tiburzi is representing a group of companies fighting the proposal, including Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., McCormick and Co., ++ NationsBank and USF&G.

"If this bill becomes the law of Maryland, it would counteract every other measure being considered to make Maryland friendlier to business," Mr. Tiburzi said.

To receive punitive damages under current law, alleged victims must show that a person or company deliberately tried to hurt them. Trial lawyers say the standard is ridiculously high.

"A drunk doctor walking into the operating room saws off the wrong leg and cannot be held liable for punitive damages unless he looks down at the patient and says, 'I know him, I hate him,' " said Daniel M. Clements, immediate past president of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

Under the proposed legislation, attorneys would have to prove only that a defendant acted "with a willful, wanton or reckless disregard for the rights of others."

The dispute over punitive damages is the latest battle in a long legislative war over how much people should be paid when they are injured. The issue has traditionally pitted plaintiffs and their attorneys against businesses, physicians and hospitals.

Supporters of bills to expand damages say they are for "civil justice." Opponents say they are for "tort reform."

This latest round grew out of a 1992 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals that attorneys must prove an intention to harm in order to win punitive damages for their plaintiffs.

In October, the Court of Appeals reversed punitive damage awards for several of Mr. Angelos' clients on those grounds. The ruling made it practically impossible for at least 8,500 other asbestos clients of his to win punitive damages. Through the bill, Mr. Angelos says, he is simply trying to return to the rules that existed when his clients were first injured many years ago.

"Why should the rights of Marylanders, not just the asbestos litigants but all Marylanders, be diminished by judicial fiat?"

Critics around the State House have suggested that the bill is designed to enrich the multimillionaire attorney and sports team owner. Mr. Angelos said, however, that if the bill passes, his firm would donate any fees earned from punitive damages to the Johns Hopkins Hospital or the University of Maryland Medical System Pulmonary Institute.

The proposal's future is uncertain. It is scheduled for a hearing Feb. 27 in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. The panel's chairman, Sen. Walter M. Baker, said he doesn't like the bill.

Mr. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said defendants should have to pay punitive damages only if they acted maliciously.

"If we start going wild on some of these claims, insurance is no longer going to be affordable or available," he said.

The punitive damages bill is one of several issues Mr. Angelos has an interest in this legislative session. He is backing a Senate bill that would add four judges to the Baltimore Circuit Court.

The bill is designed to speed the process by which the courts will decide thousands of asbestos cases lingering in the system.

He also is planning to seek changes in his team's lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority to match the terms of the agreement between the state and the Cleveland Browns.

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