Bill ends asbestos suit cap

Biggest beneficiary would be Angelos

February 11, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, the state's leading attorney in asbestos lawsuits, stands to become the single largest beneficiary of proposed legislation to remove a cap on damages in such cases.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Thomas A. Bromwell at the request of Angelos' firm, would exempt most asbestos cases from a cap set by the legislature on awards for "noneconomic" damages such as pain and suffering in personal injury lawsuits.

The cap, set at $350,000 when the law was passed in 1986, was raised to $500,000 in 1994, with a $15,000 a year increase after that.

Angelos has thousands of asbestos-exposure cases pending in Baltimore Circuit Court. His firm would benefit from Bromwell's bill because it collects a fee of a quarter to a third of the monetary damages awarded in each case.

In an interview yesterday, Angelos denied that his support of the bill has anything to do with personal gain.

"I'm not even concerned about the size of the fee," he said. "I'm long past that concern."

Bromwell said he is a friend of Angelos, who bought majority ownership of the Orioles largely out of wealth gained from asbestos cases. But the senator said he introduced the bill because it is "the right thing to do" for the victims of asbestos-related diseases.

"I ain't doing it for Peter Angelos," said Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat. "I'm doing it for his clients."

Bromwell has received thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from Angelos-controlled entities over the years, but said that did not affect his decision to introduce the bill. The 1986 law, Bromwell said, imposed arbitrary limits that discriminate against people whose diseases took a long time to develop.

But Del. Robert L. Flanagan, the House minority whip, said it would be arbitrary to lift the cap for one category of injury plaintiff.

"Why would the legislature pick one single type of lawsuit and lift the cap except for the fact that Peter Angelos is a political insider, a big contributor to the Democratic Party and to Democratic candidates?" said Flanagan, a Howard County Republican.

Angelos said his "foremost ambition" is repeal of the "anti-citizen" caps in all personal injury and wrongful death cases. "The 1986 cap statute was a bill passed for the benefit of the insurance companies, and they have made a tremendous profit from it," he said.

The Bromwell bill would remove the cap for victims of "latent diseases" -- those that take a long time to show up after exposure to the agent that causes them -- if the person came into contact with the toxin before July 1986. Virtually all asbestos cases fall into that category. Direct economic damages such as medical bills are not affected by the cap or the bill.

Bromwell said he was asked to put in the legislation by former Baltimore Sen. John A. Pica Jr., who lobbies for Angelos in Annapolis. Bromwell said he knew the measure would prompt controversy. "I guess if I wanted to be the real politician, I would have never touched the bill," he said.

Experts estimate that nationally 20 million workers may have been exposed to asbestos, an insulating material used in construction and shipbuilding until the late 1970s. As many as 400,000 American workers have died or will die of asbestos-related disease, including lung cancer and asbestosis.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has not formally taken a position on the bill, but Miles Cole, vice president for government relations, said, "We're not crazy about the idea."

"We like the idea of caps on noneconomic damages," Cole said. "We think that's worked well to have a good economic climate in Maryland."

The General Assembly imposed the cap on noneconomic damages in personal injury cases amid concerns about the unwillingness of insurers to provide liability coverage. In 1994, the legislature raised the cap but extended the limit to wrongful death cases.

In 1997, the Court of Special Appeals ruled that the cap applies in asbestos cases. The court cut a Baltimore jury's award to two widows of asbestos victims from $3.5 million to $500,000. The Bromwell bill would undo that ruling.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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