Flood of calls dooms personal injury bill

Panel votes against move to comparative negligence standard

March 20, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A bill that would have made it easier for plaintiffs to collect damages in personal injury cases died in a Maryland Senate committee yesterday - the victim of an outpouring of calls from small businesses and the influence of Peter G. Angelos.

The official vote in the Judicial Proceedings Committee was 9-2 against a switch to the legal standard known as comparative negligence - under which a jury could weigh how much a defendant and a plaintiff contributed to an accident and set damages accordingly.

The bill's defeat leaves Maryland as one of four states that apply the standard known as contributory negligence. Under that doctrine, injured persons can be barred from collecting damages if they contributed in any way to their accidents.

The contest was much closer than the vote indicated.

Proponents of the change, led by the state's trial lawyers, believed at one time that they had the six votes necessary to send the bill to the Senate floor for the first time since the mid-1980s. But they were stunned by the defection of a co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Perry Sfikas. Senate sources said that when the Democrat from Southeast Baltimore told colleagues he would oppose the bill, several others decided to vote no.

"If he hadn't done that, I'm sure the bill would have passed," said Sen. Jennie M. Forehand, a Montgomery County Democrat who said she would have voted "yes" if Sfikas hadn't switched.

Sfikas said he decided to vote against the bill after an outpouring of calls from small businesses such as Little Italy restaurants and Greek grocery stores.

"I have heard from small taverns and restaurants and shops that traditionally have never been involved," Sfikas said.

The senator also confirmed that he had been lobbied to oppose the bill by Angelos, the state's leading trial lawyer.

Sfikas said Angelos had raised concerns that the bill could be amended in the House in a way that could imperil thousands of lawsuits his firm has filed on behalf of victims of asbestos exposure.

Angelos' concern was that the House would add language eliminating another legal standard known as "joint and several liability" - a doctrine that makes it easier for plaintiffs to collect from defendants with deep pockets. The Maryland State Bar Association has long taken the position that any change from the contributory negligence standard should be coupled with elimination of the "joint and several" doctrine.

Angelos, who has built his fortune on asbestos-related damage suits, has depended heavily on that standard in his lawsuits against big industrial employers.

Sfikas said his district has a large population of victims of asbestos-related disease.

"I prefer to err on the side of caution to make sure that nothing happens that might jeopardize the cases of steel workers and other retirees of a lot of the local industry," he said.

Sfikas' defection came as a bitter blow to the trial lawyers, who had been more optimistic about their pet issue than they had been in many years.

"We are disappointed with the outcome of the vote. We thought earlier in the session things looked more favorable to us than they turned out," said Daniel M. Clements, chairman of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association's political action committee. The only members of the Senate committee to vote for the bill were its sponsor, Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat, and Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat. Five Democrats joined the panel's four Republicans in opposing the legislation.

The bill was strongly opposed by business interests and local governments.

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