Senate kills bill to ease damage rule Asbestos victims would have gained under proposal

Businesses saw threat

Orioles owner accused of serving narrow interest

March 16, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron | C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A state Senate committee yesterday killed legislation that would have made it easier for thousands of Marylanders with asbestos-related diseases to collect millions of dollars in punitive damage awards.

Backed heavily by Orioles owner and plaintiffs' lawyer Peter G. Angelos and opposed vigorously by Maryland business groups the measure failed on a 5-4 vote in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"It would have been a terrible signal to send about the business climate in Maryland," said Robert R. Neall, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.

But Edgar P. Silver, a lobbyist for Mr. Angelos, said the vote was a defeat for working people injured on the job.

"They have demonized Peter Angelos once again to the detriment of 12,000 Marylanders," Mr. Silver said, referring to the number of asbestos-related cases pending in Baltimore Circuit Court. "It's tragic."

Mr. Angelos, whose Baltimore law firm represents most of the asbestos plaintiffs, was accused of engineering narrow special interest legislation with the help of employees Cal Ripken Jr., the shortstop who made a visit to the legislature several weeks ago, and two senators who are or have been on his law firm's payroll. Baltimore County Democrat Norman R. Stone is a member of the firm; Baltimore Democrat John A. Pica Jr. used to be.

An editorial in Thursday's Wall Street Journal widely commented on in Annapolis accused Mr. Angelos of backing a "nakedly self-serving proposal."

The bill appeared to have enough support to get out of committee until yesterday's vote, when one of the measure's sponsors voted against it and another missed the roll call.

One sponsor, Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat, voted no and declined to comment after the committee adjourned.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican, said he didn't realize the bill was to be voted on and was being interviewed by Maryland Public Television when the vote was taken.

Had the measure been passed by the General Assembly, it would have returned Maryland law to its status prior to 1992, when the state Court of Appeals changed the standard of proof necessary to win punitive damages. Punitive damages are cash awards from defendants, including corporations, made over and above damages for pain and suffering.

Business sees threat

Opponents argued that the threat of punitive damages would hurt businesses in Maryland and keep others away.

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

An inebriated physician who removed the wrong leg in an operation could not be held liable for punitive damages unless he made clear he hated the patient, one lawyer said.

In October, the Court of Appeals reversed punitive damage awards for several of Mr. Angelos' clients, citing the standard established by its 1992 ruling. The court's action made it practically impossible for at least 8,500 other asbestos clients of Mr. Angelos to win punitive damages.

Through the bill, Mr. Angelos said, he was simply trying to return to the rules that existed when his clients were injured. Under the legislation that died yesterday, plaintiffs would have had to prove only that a defendant acted "with a willful, wanton or reckless disregard for the rights of others."

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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