Punitive damages bill fought Proposal, related one called bad for state

February 28, 1996|By Frank Langfitt and Mark Hyman | Frank Langfitt and Mark Hyman,SUN STAFF

Businesses throughout Maryland turned out in Annapolis yesterday to fight a pair of bills that would make it easier for victims to recover money from companies and people deemed responsible for their injuries.

Arguing that it would hurt the state's business climate, the Glendening administration opposed a measure that would loosen restrictions on awarding punitive damages.

The bill, introduced on behalf of Orioles owner and Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos, could mean millions of dollars for plaintiffs -- including Mr. Angelos' clients who have suffered from exposure to asbestos.

But state economic development chief James T. Brady said the proposal would make it more difficult to lure companies to Maryland at a time when the governor is trying to improve the state's image among businesses.

"In my opinion, this bill sends a message that Maryland is not very serious about creating a pro-business climate," Mr. Brady said during a hearing before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Speaking on behalf of Mr. An-gelos, University of Baltimore economist Joel N. Morse countered that there was no evidence that a change in the punitive damages law would hurt the state's economy. Mr. Morse noted that, since 1980, states with looser punitive damages laws have actually seen greater job growth.

In an attempt to win over opponents, the bill's sponsor, Sen. John A. Pica Jr., modified his bill to propose changing the law only as it applies to product liability cases. Standards for punitive damages would not change for doctors, landlords or most other companies, he said.

"The only people who are going to be punished are those who have wronged the people of Maryland," said Mr. Pica, a Baltimore Democrat.

The bill marks the latest episode in a long battle over how much people and companies should pay when they injure others. The issue traditionally pits plaintiffs' lawyers such as Mr. Angelos against businesses, physicians and insurance companies.

Mr. Pica's bill seeks to nullify a 1992 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals which says victims must show a person or company deliberately tried to hurt them before they can win punitive damages. Trial lawyers say the standard is practically impossible to meet.

Under the bill, attorneys would have to demonstrate only that a defendant acted with a wanton or reckless disregard for a victim's rights. But with the announcement of the governor's opposition, the bill's prospects for passage appeared to dim.

A related bill, which would change Maryland's negligence law to a comparative-fault system, drew more than two dozen witnesses for a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

Under the present system of contributory fault, plaintiffs are barred from recovering money if they are even partly responsible for their injuries. A comparative system would allow them to recover in such cases.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Gilbert J. Genn, a Democrat from Montgomery County, and Baltimore Democrat Kenneth C. Montague Jr., has the support of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

Daniel M. Clements, one of the group's past presidents, told legislators to discount claims that a comparative system would hurt business.

"When you hear, 'Bad for business, bad for business,' it's only because there is no legitimate defense to the bill. So, [opponents] made one up," he said.

Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland Law School, said the bill would bring Maryland into the mainstream of negligence law. "This is [an area of Maryland law] that, by modern standards, is barbaric," he said.

The Maryland State Bar Association urged amendments to the bill, including one that would abolish joint and several liability. In a case involving multiple defendants, that rule holds defendants liable for more than their share of damages if other defendants can't or don't pay.

The change would make the bill more friendly to defendants in negligence suits. But it won't sway the bill's detractors, said Paul Tiburzi, a lobbyist for the Maryland Tort Reform Coalition, which represents the business community.

"It would make an awful bill a little less awful," Mr. Tiburzi said.

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