Wrong way to address smoking ills Rewriting the rules: Curran's proposal opens door to unwelcome changes in tort law.

March 05, 1998

IN HIS role as lawyer for the people of Maryland, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. is charged with protecting their interests. Yet in efforts to win a lawsuit seeking reimbursement from tobacco companies for the state's costs in treating smoking-related illnesses, he is seeking a change in tort law that could work to the detriment of the state's interests in other areas.

We agree Maryland should get its share of lucrative legal settlements with tobacco companies that have consistently denied the harm done by their products. But we part company with the attorney general on his belief that the goal of getting more money justifies changes in the state's tort laws that have been debated and defeated by the General Assembly for many years.

Mr. Curran wants the General Assembly to approve legislation narrowly targeted to improve the state's chances of recovering money from tobacco companies. The bill would overturn a trial court judge's decision that threw out several aspects of the state's lawsuit. It would also significantly lessen the state's burden of proof by allowing it to use statistical evidence of the cost of treating smokers' illnesses rather than interviewing individual smokers who received Medicaid.

Mr. Curran insists his bill would not apply to any other industry. He is right about that, but he is wrong if he believes that carving out this exception to the state's approach to personal-injury lawsuits would be the end of the matter.

Personal injury lawyers and others who have long tried to change the state's approach to such lawsuits are eagerly supporting this legislation. If it passes, they are ready to pounce on this one exception and enlarge it to include any other industry that could conceivably be held liable for damages -- for example, power companies and manufacturers of electronic equipment that emits electromagnetic waves suspected of causing cancer.

As evil as tobacco may be -- and as attractive as a lucrative settlement surely is -- the end does not justify the means. Even without the legislation, the state has a good chance of recovering billions from the tobacco industry.

This bill is attractive for all the wrong reasons. It's one thing to battle the tobacco industry; it's quite another to use that worthy fight to set the stage for changes in Maryland law that almost surely would have severe and unintended repercussions. Customized tort reform is a bad idea -- and a bad advertisement to companies looking to do business in Maryland.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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