Damage debate makes issue of Angelos

March 19, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- In the matter of Peter Angelos offending the sensitivities of the Maryland business community, who's calling whom a name? Angelos says you can't trust the big corporations, and the corporations say you can't trust Angelos. The question is: Why are we talking so much about Angelos?

He's a lightning rod, naturally. He owns the famous Orioles, and everybody knows about the money he's made in court for the victims of asbestos poisoning, and for himself. Over recent weeks, though, he's been saying the money's not enough, the law needs to be changed, there should be a bigger shot at punitive damages for those who suffer when corporations ignore people's safety.

Last week, the Maryland legislature called Angelos out on strikes and then braced itself as he prepared to argue with any umpire in the vicinity.

"An egregious, self-serving proposition," Champe C. McCulloch, of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said of Angelos' bid.

"The chamber of commerce," sneered Angelos, "is just acting as a front for the insurance industry, which is engaged in outrageous distortion and name-calling."

Thus were battles lines drawn last Friday when a Senate committee voted, 5-4, to kill the so-called "Angelos Bill," which would have improved chances for collecting punitive damages, the cash awarded beyond compensatory pain, suffering and lost wages.

Angelos said the bill would have sent word to corporate villains: bTC Shape up, or face the consequences. But critics said, No, no, this would be a bad sign to the business community: Maryland is hostile territory; enter only at your peril.

And then they started getting personal.

They blamed Angelos for bringing Cal Ripken Jr. to Annapolis for a schmooze session. Manipulative, they said. ("Ripken?" Angelos said yesterday. "That wasn't my doing. [House Speaker] Cas Taylor drove me up a wall to bring Cal down there. I didn't want to. Cal was exhausted. We drove down in a snowstorm.")

The punitive damages bill itself? Self-serving, the critics called it. It would benefit asbestos victims, yes, but who were these victims? Angelos' clients! And who was trying to move it through committee? Two Angelos pals.

There was Sen. John Pica, who sponsored the legislation. Until three months ago, he was employed in Angelos' law firm. Then there was Sen. Norman Stone. He's still in Angelos' firm. Stone sponsored a plan to add more judges to hear the backlogged asbestos cases. So they ripped Angelos for that and thus sidestepped the larger question: big corporations hurting individuals, and the individuals not getting their full shot at striking back.

This business of suing corporations sometimes gets a bad rap. We hear of spilled hot coffee from McDonald's winning millions and thus imagine all plaintiffs abusing the system. We don't hear so much from those who lie in their beds, coughing up blood and dying prematurely from asbestos exposure, or families waiting years for overcrowded dockets to clear so they can have their belated day in court.

Angelos' detractors, most conspicuously the insurance industry which has to pay off these asbestos lawsuits, said he wanted to pad his own pockets. In a nation grown wary of attorneys, such talk strikes a chord. But, when Angelos talks of people victimized by willful corporate negligence, this, too, hits a nerve. We've learned to suspect the big industries. Cigarette, anyone?

Complicating matters more: In a time of tight money, legislators worry about ticking off any businesses considering a move to Maryland even though, by Angelos' count, 43 states have the very law he wants to bring here.

He has some experience in these matters. Over the past 22 years, beginning with Bethlehem Steel workers exposed to asbestos who were dying prematurely, he's represented maybe 10,000 clients from steel mills and shipyards. Manufacturers, he maintains, "knew this stuff was killing people, and they concealed it, and people never knew the hazards they were facing."

"The corporations knew it by 1938. They knew asbestos was a carcinogen, but they kept dealing in it, because of the tremendous profits, and never mind the levels of exposure, and never mind the government ignoring it, and never mind all those people who were dying."

But the huge practice he built on such cases worked against him last week. Angelos became the issue. His critics said no one would cash in on punitive damages the way he would. On this, he became furious.

"On punitive damages," he said, "we won't collect 5 cents. I made that pledge at a Senate hearing. I made it publicly and repeatedly. We already collect sufficient fees. We'll donate our punitive damage fees. We're prepared to pledge them to Johns Hopkins Hospital and University Hospital."

Such talk failed to soften the opposition. For now. Despite last week's vote, Angelos said yesterday that he's "just begun to fight." The issue, he says, shouldn't be him. The issue is corporations in need of a conscience. Maybe they wouldn't worry about punitive damages if they didn't do anything harmful in the first place.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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