Comparative negligence bill dropped Plan is to reintroduce measure next year in Annapolis

Lawyers group pushed it

Supporters say contributory system is tough on plaintiffs

March 09, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A move to give Maryland a more plaintiff-friendly standard for awarding damages in civil suits ended abruptly last night when a chief proponent announced that he had withdrawn the legislation.

Del. Gilbert J. Genn, D-Montgomery, said he was pulling the bill that would establish "comparative negligence" as the state standard in many civil actions.

Mr. Genn said he would reintroduce the measure in Annapolis next year, and said he hoped that the General Assembly could find a consensus on the issue "that is fair to both sides."

Supporters of the legislation say Maryland's long-held contributory negligence rule is unduly harsh on plaintiffs.

Under the contributory system -- a standard used only in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and the District of Columbia -- people who file lawsuits cannot recover damages if they were even partially responsible for their injuries.

By contrast, in states that have adopted comparative negligence, juries are instructed to parcel out fault among all parties, including the plaintiff and multiple defendants. The plaintiff's award then is reduced by the percentage of his responsibility for injuries.

Mr. Genn's measure was pushed heavily by the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, but was fought by a coalition of business, insurance and other groups that are worried about soaring litigation costs.

The opponents say comparative negligence is unneeded, unwanted and would be a drag on Maryland's economy. A change in the law, they predict, would result in a surge in tort litigation and increased insurance costs.

They also point out that several of Maryland's neighboring states use the contributory-fault system, a point that could work against this state in recruiting and keeping businesses.

"It really is a day for celebration," said Paul Tiburzi, a lobbyist for the coalition fighting the measure. Mr. Tiburzi said that, by his count, the measure would have been killed anyway by the House Judiciary Committee this session. "I think he's withdrawing it one step before the guillotine," Mr. Tiburzi said of Mr. Genn.

For his part, Mr. Genn said he thought he could have found enough votes to win approval by the 22-member committee and send the bill to the full House of Delegates.

He said, though, that he was withdrawing the measure partially at the request of Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who opposes it. "I'm acceding to his desire not to push the bill this year," Mr. Genn said.

Mr. Taylor said last night that he had not urged sponsors to withdraw the bill. But, he added, "I think the bill does damage the business climate in the state."

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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