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Pressure From Angelos Dooms Liability Bill Again

By Van Smith | Posted 3/28/2001

The Annapolis lawyer lobby's annual battle over legislation to change Maryland's archaic standard on negligence is over for the year, and Peter Angelos won. The millionaire attorney pressured one of the bill's co-sponsors, state Sen. Perry Sfikas (D-Baltimore City), to abandon the cause, prompting most of the legislator's colleagues on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to jump ship as well. On March 19, the committee voted it down 9-2, quashing backers' hopes to take the measure to the Senate floor for debate for the first time since the mid-1980s.

The debate over negligence (Mobtown Beat, March 7) is a yearly legislative rite that dates to mid-'50s. Reform advocates--plaintiffs' lawyers and their clients--denounce as unjust the state's current system, called "contributory negligence," in which accident victims can't collect damages in a civil suit if they are determined to have contributed in any way to the mishap. Opponents--primarily business and government interests--worry that the proposed alternative, "comparative negligence," by which liability is apportioned according to the degree of carelessness, would drive up their costs and clog courts with frivolous lawsuits.

Officials with the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, which supports the switch to comparative negligence, say the committee was poised to approve the bill until Sfikas buckled under pressure from Angelos and small businesses in his Southeast Baltimore district. "When Sen. Sfikas determined he could not vote for the bill, other supporters just very simply were not going to fall on the sword if it was going to fail anyway," association lobbyist Dan Doherty says.

Angelos, who made his millions suing asbestos manufacturers that knowingly sold the cancer-causing material to Baltimore factories, couldn't be reached for comment. But according to Doherty, his opposition stemmed from fear that the negligence bill would be amended to also eliminate a legal principle called "joint and several liability," on which many of Angelos' asbestos cases are based. The principle means that once a party is found responsible for damage--in Angelos' cases, asbestos-related health problems in workers--that party is liable for all resulting costs, even if they didn't cause all the damage.

"We couldn't take a chance on" a joint-and-several amendment passing, Sfikas says, because it would endanger 2,305 asbestos cases involving plaintiffs in his district. Sfikas says that, and not Angelos' political clout, influenced his decision.

"Certainly I like Peter Angelos--I wouldn't say otherwise," Sfikas says, but he adds that he's opposed the attorney and Orioles owner on other legislative issues. In this case, he says, Angelos persuaded him to change his vote because the possible amendment was "just a risk we couldn't run." he says.

Maryland Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, an advocacy group that supports the state's current negligence standard, also wants some credit for killing the bill. While the Angelos factor was important, Executive Director Nancy Hill says, hundreds of her group's supporters wrote letters opposing the bill.

Stephen Markey, a Greenbelt attorney who for years has used the existing negligence standard to protect auto-insurance companies from having to pay out damages, was one of the bill's more unlikely supporters. He believes a switch to comparative negligence is just a matter of time, given that Maryland is one of only four states without it. "Sooner or later they'll come around," Markey says of state legislators. "Maryland is very often in the forefront in some of its laws, and sometimes we bring up the tail. As far as this particular issue is concerned, we're one of the laggards."

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