Change in liability law debated anew at capital

Bill to aid plaintiffs is back on agenda of General Assembly

Insurers, business opposed `Comparative negligence' bill debated

March 02, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

For more than 25 years, Laurel attorney Stephen Markey represented insurance companies and won a lot of cases, thanks to a Maryland legal doctrine that prevents injured people from collecting damages if their errors played any part in causing an accident.

Now on the verge of retirement, Markey came to Annapolis yesterday to urge lawmakers to change that standard to one that is more friendly to plaintiffs. He told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that, in many of the cases he won, his clients were primarily responsible and "injustice was being done."

"There are many times I walked away with a win that didn't make me feel good," he said.

Markey was one of 44 witnesses who signed up to testify for or against legislation that comes back to Annapolis each year as predictably as swallows to San Juan Capistrano.

"It was a bad bill 30 years ago. It's still a bad bill," James Doyle, the white-haired dean of the Annapolis lobbying corps, said on behalf of three large corporations.

The bill, which would adopt the "comparative negligence" standard used in 46 other states, has made little headway in recent years. But this year, because of changes on the Judicial Proceedings Committee, it is believed to have a chance of passing the Senate.

The legislation would abandon the "contributory negligence" doctrine prized by Maryland's business leaders and local governments. The standard creates a high hurdle for personal injury plaintiffs, preventing many lawsuits from being filed.

Under the comparative negligence standard it would adopt, the court would weigh how much blame to assign to the defendant and plaintiff and set any judgment accordingly. A plaintiff found to be more than 50 percent responsible could not collect.

Sen. Leo Green, the bill's sponsor, told committee members a change is "a simple matter of fairness." The Prince George's County Democrat said that, under the doctrine, tire maker Firestone was able to avoid making payments to Marylanders injured in accidents after they received a recall notice.

As in other years, lawmakers heard testimony from citizens who could not collect damages after grievous injuries under the current standard. Some came leaning on canes or walkers they use because of their injuries.

Bob Campbell, a siding installer who bears the scars of an electrical accident 15 years ago, came from Carroll County to describe how a Baltimore judge overturned a jury's finding that Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. was liable for his injuries.

According to Campbell, the jury decided the exposed electrical wire he touched with a ladder was improperly installed, but the judge ruled that his failure to see the wire contributed to the injury.

"To this day, I suffer. I can barely work," he said. "It's not a fair thing to people who legitimately deserve their awards."

Opponents said the proposal would drive up the costs of insurance for business and local governments.

David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said, "It just opens up the door for more opportunities to go to court."

Paul Tiburzi, a lobbyist for a coalition of large Maryland companies, said the bill would drive up insurance costs, utility rates and taxes.

"Your constituents are going to be hurt if you pass this bill," he warned.

But even some conservative lawmakers are concerned about injured constituents who were denied compensation under the current standard.

Sen. Timothy Ferguson, usually a staunch business ally, described the case of a friend and constituent who died after being run over by a forklift whose driver was "stoned out of his mind."

He said his friend's widow was told by her lawyer that she didn't have a case, because the victim had strayed over a yellow safety line when he was hit.

"It's a struggle, because you know these people," said Ferguson, a Republican who represents Carroll and Frederick counties.

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