Tobacco industry finds move to change law in state's favor unfair Curran's proposal would improve chances in suit over smokers' care

January 31, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The tobacco industry and some of its supporters are criticizing the effort of Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to rewrite the law to give the state a better chance in its $13 billion legal case against cigarette companies.

Curran's effort to have the General Assembly undo part of a judge's adverse pretrial decision in the lawsuit is unfair, industry representatives said.

"The state's suit has been around for a couple of years," said Nat Walker, a spokesman for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. "So it would seem to us that if there's some effort being made to change the rules in midstream, that does not seem fair to us."

Like more than three dozen other states, Maryland has sued cigarette companies in an attempt to recover billions of dollars the state-funded Medicaid program has spent to care for ailing smokers. The trial is scheduled for April next year.

In a pretrial decision in May, Baltimore Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown dismissed nine of the state lawsuit's 13 claims.

Curran's legislation, to be introduced in Annapolis next week, would undo some of that ruling by giving the state a broader right to bring common-law claims against cigarette manufacturers.

Such a legislative approach is not unheard of.

The Assembly has enacted several bills that had a significant effect on pending civil litigation, said Robert A. Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who advises the legislature.

"Certainly, it's not unprecedented," Zarnoch said.

Legislators are likely to question Curran's effort, even if it is directed at an industry that receives little public support.

"I'm not sure that it's right for the state to say we have a lot of money on the line and there are some nefarious actions to point to, so therefore let's forget what traditionally we've had as legal rules," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat and a trial lawyer.

"Generally [they're] seen as bad guys," said Poole, who said he has not taken a position on the bill. "But even bad guys have rights."

Curran said yesterday that he expects the bill to pass because lawmakers overwhelmingly support his goal.

"I have not talked to a person yet who doesn't want us to win this case," Curran said. "They all want us to recover."

Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat who heads the committee that would consider the bill in the Senate, said he is sympathetic to Curran's effort to gain leverage with the goal of forcing the tobacco industry to settle.

But Baker said he worries that the Assembly might go too far.

"I don't want to deal anybody any aces," Baker said. "But if I can facilitate the solution, then I'm willing to do it."

Del. Barbara Frush, a Prince George's Democrat and a leader in the Assembly on smoking issues, said she has no qualms about getting into the court fight.

"Do they have any qualms about targeting our children, our 12-year-olds?" Frush said, referring to the industry's marketing efforts. "Qualms? No way."

Pub Date: 1/31/98

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