Y2K buffer bill vetoed

Governor says effort to protect firms from lawsuits is too broad


May 13, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Dealing a blow to Maryland business groups, Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed legislation yesterday that would have given companies wide protection from lawsuits prompted by Year 2000 computer problems.

The governor said the measure, which passed the General Assembly this year, was too broad and would have blocked lawsuits even in cases in which a millennium-ending computer failure caused personal injury or death.

"This is an issue of fundamental fairness and protecting families who have been harmed due to no fault of their own," Glendening said.

But the governor said he would sign a measure that provides some legal protection to state and local governments related to year-end computer problems. That legislation was amended during the Assembly session to exempt any restrictions on lawsuits brought in cases of personal injury or death.

Both measures were designed to address a concern that the Year 2000 problem, in which many computers are unable to distinguish the year 2000 from the year 1900, will lead to widespread system failures and lawsuits.

About half the states have passed legislation to provide some legal protection to companies in the event of a Y2K problem. Federal legislation backed by a coalition of businesses is pending in Congress.

The bill vetoed yesterday would have allowed companies to defend themselves in Y2K-related lawsuits by making "good faith" efforts to fix any computer glitches.

Supporters of the legislation, which was sponsored by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., said it was a moderate measure that would have simply directed a judge to take into account a company's efforts to fix the problem before deciding if it is liable.

But Glendening laid out three scenarios in which someone could be seriously harmed or killed by problems caused by computers. He noted as an example a patient whose drug prescription is changed by a drugstore computer because of a Y2K glitch. Should that patient suffer serious injury, the legislation would have blocked him from winning a lawsuit, the governor said.

"Would you not expect some legal recourse in these circumstances?" Glendening said.

The veto had some political overtones for the governor, who has feuded for the past three years with one of the bill's most vocal supporters, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. Sharply opposing the bill was the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, which was an ardent backer of Glendening during his successful re-election campaign last year.

In the third of four scheduled bill signings, Glendening was scheduled to sign 212 bills into law today, including a series of economic development measures, a measure to allow the state to suspend the driver's licenses of youths convicted of making bomb threats and legislation granting collective-bargaining rights to thousands of state workers.

National labor leaders are expected to be on hand for the signing of the bargaining bill.

The governor is also expected to sign a measure to require increased inspections of home-based day care facilities. Among those expected to attend the bill-signing are relatives of the two infants who died in a Stevensville day care home last year.

The governor said yesterday that he was still weighing vetoes of a number of bills, including one that would prohibit someone from assisting in another person's suicide.

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