Damaging bill on punitive damages Reversal of state law: Angelos bill would enrich plaintiffs' lawyers.

March 06, 1996

FUNNY THING about the proposal in Annapolis supposedly designed to make it easier for people to win punitive damages from Maryland businesses: The people it helps most are -- surprise! -- lawyers.

Under this bill, plaintiffs' lawyers would retain their current share of punitive damages awards, while plaintiffs would have to split their portion with the state. Imagine an award that comes to $6 million after subtracting litigation expenses. Currently, the lawyer takes one-third, $2 million, leaving $4 million for the plaintiff. The pending legislation would still give the lawyer one-third, but the plaintiff would have to share the remainder with the state. In our hypothetical case, that would reduce the plaintiff's share by 50 percent, to $2 million.

So much for the pretense that enacting this bill is a win for the little guy or gal.

Aside from the reek of self-interest and cynicism that surrounds the measure -- it bears the strong stamp of Peter Angelos, whose fortune stems from these cases -- the legislation compounds the widespread perception, justified or not, that Maryland is hostile to business. Only four years ago, the legislature hashed through the issues of product liability and personal injury -- sensitive subjects in an era when large employers who are convinced that a state's business climate is unfriendly can count on a line of suitors to woo them elsewhere.

The 1992 legislation, along with a 1995 court decision, strikes a compromise between the interests of businesses and people injured by their products. In addition to compensation for economic loss and pain and suffering, it allows unlimited punitive damage awards, but requires a high standard of proof of company negligence. That puts Maryland in a reasonable position versus our economic competitors. Holding to that standard would give the state stability in an important area of law.

The bill pending in Annapolis would destroy that stability by abruptly reversing current law. Even worse, it would allow the new provisions to apply retroactively, thus changing the ground rules on cases already pending in court. That would send a disastrous signal about the state's whimsical approach to legislation important to business and to the climate of stability companies need in order to plan effectively.

This bill is written for the benefit of lawyers -- and only one kind of lawyer. When the majority of the legal community joins with large and small employers across the state in loud and alarmed )) opposition to a bill, even legislators ought to be able to tell the difference between raw self-interest and the common good.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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