Angelos chosen for Md. lawsuit Tobacco companies targeted for payback of health care costs

Enormous sums at stake

Orioles owner picked because of his success in asbestos litigation

March 21, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, who made a fortune suing asbestos companies, was chosen yesterday to handle a potentially lucrative lawsuit against tobacco companies on behalf of the state of Maryland.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. tapped Mr. Angelos' Baltimore law firm to lead the state's effort to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars it has spent on tobacco-related illnesses, chiefly through its Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.

Mr. Curran said he picked the Angelos firm over five others in part because of its experience handling thousands of complicated asbestos-related cases in Baltimore and around the country.

In addition, he said, Mr. Angelos has the temperament necessary for doing battle with tobacco companies, which are known for their aggressive legal tactics.

"Peter Angelos has the money, the experience and the guts to take on an industry that plays hardball and will do virtually anything to stay out of court," Mr. Curran said.

Mr. Angelos said yesterday that he was eager to take on the case because of its potential rewards to his firm and its challenging legal aspects.

"We believe there is a very substantial case and a very strong possibility of recovery," Mr. Angelos said. "It's a very challenging piece of litigation."

Mr. Angelos said he expects to file the suit by May 1, although it could take years to go to trial.

Being tapped to take on the lawsuit represented a swift turnaround for Mr. Angelos, who suffered a setback last week when a Senate committee killed a bill he had pushed aggressively to ease the standard needed to win punitive damages.

The bill, which also was backed by organized labor, would have made it easier for victims of asbestos-related diseases to collect awards.

The measure was defeated by a vigorous push by Maryland business groups. The matter even became a national issue, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, which criticized Mr. Angelos' strong lobbying on the issue.

Mr. Angelos also has lobbied legislators for a bill to add four judges to the Baltimore City Circuit Court to help unclog thousands of stalled asbestos-related cases. The measure, which also is supported by the court's chief judge, is pending in the state Senate.

Under the terms of his proposal, the Angelos law firm would receive 25 percent of any awards won by the state the same percentage other law firms are working for on behalf of other states that have filed suit, Mr. Curran said.

The firm also has agreed to cover all expenses associated with the litigation, which could easily reach $5 million, Mr. Curran said.

Mr. Angelos said his firm was taking a reasonable risk by agreeing to pay expenses with no guarantee of winning.

"This is the kind of risk-recovery situation that all plaintiff lawyers are involved with on a daily basis," he said.

To make their case, attorneys for the state will have to plow through years of state Medicaid and other health care records to identify treatment costs associated with smoking.

Attorneys in the case will work closely with those working for other states, as the issues will often be identical, Mr. Curran said.

Mr. Angelos has recruited Marc Z. Edell, a Philadelphia lawyer who has sued tobacco companies in other states, and Richard Daynard, a tobacco expert from Northeastern University in Boston.

Mr. Curran said he made the selection of Mr. Angelos after consulting with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and legislative leaders.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said he had no reservations about Mr. Angelos' qualifications.

"Mr. Angelos has been very successful," said Mr. Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

"If he can be equally successful for the state of Maryland, he will be providing a public service."

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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