Group hopes to reduce lawsuits Questionable actions costly, organizers say

September 21, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Alarmed by continuing reports of frivolous lawsuits, an Annapolis businessman and his friends want to try to show Marylanders why they should think before they sue.

To focus its public education campaign, the group has formed Baltimore Regional Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, hired an executive director, put up six billboards and started raising money. Similar groups have come together in Texas and West Virginia.

Even when questionable suits are dismissed or fail in court, they are costly to taxpayers, to consumers and to corporations, say the group's organizers.

"The cost doesn't always show up on the balance sheet, but it's a problem all of us are dealing with financially," said Joseph Sachs, a 62-year-old former Annapolis alderman, former chairman of Historic Annapolis and now the owner of two restaurants.

Some examples of what Sachs and others regard as abuse:

In Baltimore County, a woman sued an opponent in a softball game, alleging intentional battery.

To protect itself from financial loss, the league sponsor then sued the umpire, the team manager and the company that made the team T-shirts. A judge dismissed the subsidiary suits, but allowed the case to proceed against the allegedly battering base runner -- who was not represented by a lawyer.

No bones were broken, and neither automobile was damaged in a two-car collision, but the state of Maryland was asked to pay $26,000 in medical bills and taken to court when it refused to settle.

"The state," says Assistant Attorney General Pamila J. Brown, "does not settle to avoid the nuisance of going to court." The case was thrown out, but the state paid its attorneys and a judge's time was wasted.

Last year, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and his colleagues from other states met with congressional officials to find ways of reducing the avalanche of prisoner lawsuits -- over such offenses as cold food. In Maryland, about 1,000 prisoner cases are handled each year by Curran's staff.

Prison-generated civil rights cases account for 22 percent of the federal court caseload in Maryland, Curran said. Some have merit, he says, but 90 percent to 95 percent do not -- and defending them in state and federal court requires the full-time work of six assistant attorneys general at a cost of at least $300,000 per year.

"These cases clog the court system so that someone with a legitimate claim can get put on the back burner for a year," Sachs said.

He said he blames what he sees as an epidemic of suits on lawyers, though not all of them, as well as on opportunistic citizens.

"I couldn't exist in business without an attorney," he said, "but I'm annoyed by the contingency lawyers out there looking for clients."

One of the costs of living in a litigious society, his new organization says, is a $20 billion annual bill for diagnostic patient tests that are ordered simply to protect doctors from the possibility of a lawsuit. In any medical procedure, the group's literature says, "a tax" is added in the form of a higher insurance payment.

Premiums paid by U.S. firms are 20 percent to 50 percent higher than in other countries.

"The U.S. has 30 times more lawsuits per person than Japan and 20 times the number of lawyers," according to the organization's literature. "There are 70,000 product liability lawsuits in the United States annually and only 200 in the United Kingdom."

Maryland is second only to California in the rate of "exaggerated soft tissue" (no broken bones) lawsuits, the new organization contends. This is the sort of injury Brown successfully defended against in the $26,000 auto injury claim.

Nationally, according to a Rand Institute for Civil Justice report quoted by Sachs' group, 35 percent to 42 percent of medical costs sought through lawsuits appear to be in excess of actual expenses. That trend is observed in cases filed against the state as well, according to Brown.

Sachs says his group is strictly a grass-roots operation, not funded by big business or small business, though business surely is concerned about the problem.

The Maryland State Bar Association shares the group's concerns and has been working with Maryland courts over the past decade to suggest arbitration and mediation whenever possible, said Janet S. Eveleth, director of communications.

Nevertheless, she said, the number of cases continues to rise even as some county courts require settlement conferences before trial.

"If that is not successful, a person can still go to court. But only about 5 percent of all the cases actually do go to court, so alternatives such as arbitration can be much more cost-effective," she said.

The bar is concerned, she said, that poor and middle-class citizens who have legitimate claims and deserve relief do not get it because they are not litigious or not aware of how the system works.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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