Bill to help state fight for tobacco damages passed by House panel Floor fights expected over measure to undo judge's adverse ruling

March 28, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

For the second day in a row, a bill designed to help the state collect billions of dollars from the tobacco industry survived a crucial committee vote in Annapolis yesterday, clearing the way for potential floor fights in the House and Senate.

On a vote of 13-6, with one abstention, the House Judiciary Committee approved the measure, but only after weakening it by removing a key section.

Supporters of the legislation were nonetheless pleased that it emerged from the committee and vowed to try to restore the deleted language.

"We're glad the bill is moving," said Eric Gally, a lobbyist for anti-smoking advocacy groups. "We'll continue to try to improve it."

The legislation, which was proposed by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., seeks to undo the effects of a pretrial ruling that hurt the state's case in its $13 billion lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.

The suit seeks to recover money the state has spent caring for people with smoking-related illnesses, along with other damages.

The measure is supported by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and health advocates but is strongly opposed by tobacco companies, which say it would unfairly change the law in the middle of a pending legal case.

The Judiciary Committee approved a key section of the bill that would allow the state to pursue several claims thrown out by a judge last year.

But the panel rejected language that would allow the state to use statistical evidence to make its case.

Difficult burden

Some legal experts have said that the judge's ruling would appear to prevent the use of such evidence, forcing the state to call thousands of witnesses to discuss their smoking-related illnesses -- an all but impossible burden.

But delegates who supported yesterday's amendment said it was likely the judge will allow statistical evidence if the rest of the legislation is approved.

Carmen M. Shepard, a deputy attorney general, said the deleted clause was "very important" to the legislation, though she

declined to speculate on how the state's case would be affected by removing it from the bill.

Passage of the legislation came over the objections of the six Republicans on the committee, some of whom said it took away the right of the tobacco industry to defend itself in court.

"No matter how bad, how evil somebody is, they have the right to go to court and be treated fairly," said Del. Michael W. Burns, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

Supporters said the measure was a "clarification" to overturn what they said was a judicial error.

Angelos' fees

Scarcely mentioned in the debate yesterday was the subject of the fee for Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos, who is handling the state's case against the tobacco companies.

Some lawmakers have called Angelos' fee -- 25 percent of any recovery -- too high.

The legislation would probably increase the amount the state recovers, and Angelos' fee, substantially.

Angelos has told Curran that he will cut his fee by at least half, but some lawmakers still want the matter to be addressed in the legislation.

The bill was approved by a Senate committee Thursday with no amendments.

Lobbyists on both sides of the issue predicted yesterday that the General Assembly would be wrestling with the issue right up to April 13, when the legislators will adjourn.

Pub Date: 3/28/98

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