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Rushed asbestos bill runs out of time in Maryland; Angelos firm called on lawmakers to get thousands of cases moving

By John O'Brien | Apr 9, 2019


Maryland Statehouse   Wikipedia

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) – Legislation introduced in the figurative 11th hour died in the literal 11th hour Monday as Maryland senators decided not to approve a bill originally supported by a powerful asbestos law firm after the House changed it.

It was a case of the Law Offices of Peter Angelos again asking the state General Assembly for help, but the bill that would have created a mediation program for tens of thousands of stagnant asbestos cases wasn’t introduced until there were two weeks left in the legislative session.

On Monday, the last day of the session, the House amended the bill to create a joint commission to study the issue. With time dwindling before lawmakers called it quits after 11 p.m., senators did not bother to vote on the new version of the bill.

It was a whirlwind two weeks for the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher March 25 – the day before it was the subject of a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing.


Angelos  

“The problem was known before the legislature even convened in January,” said Richard Montgomery, the Director of Legislative Relations for the Maryland State Bar Association.

“No one had time to prepare for the hearing except the inside players who knew it was coming.”

The chair of that committee, Sen. Bobby Zirkin, is also a personal injury lawyer who has thrown out the first pitch on Opening Day for Angelos’ Baltimore Orioles. 

The proposed legislation would have created new methods for treating the Baltimore Backlog, close to 30,000 asbestos cases on an active and an inactive docket. The Angelos firm has filed the majority of those cases, and mass settlements could have followed had the bill been successful.

The bill, as noted by state Attorney General Brian Frosh, had some constitutional concerns, reported Maryland Matters.

Judge W. Michel Pierson, the asbestos court’s administrative judge, said the legislation was unnecessary, though his testimony before the Senate committee in March apparently fell upon deaf ears.

He said more than half of the cases that were scheduled for a status conference, at which plaintiffs must meet a minimum standard of proof, “have fallen out.”

“My conclusion from that is that among the large number of cases out there, there is a significant number of cases that are not viable and will not go forward,” Pierson said.      

The perceived backlog (Pierson says that the total figure includes cases that were resolved and not administratively closed, as well as cases with no hope for success) is being addressed by rules put in place in 2017, he says. Some cases were filed so plaintiffs could preserve their rights to pursue them, Pierson said.

Meanwhile, with 500 open trial slots per month, it’s up to the plaintiffs to schedule their trials – something Pierson says is not happening. It was a criticism of the Angelos firm when it tried to get other legislation passed.

“Do you know why that isn’t being done?” Pierson was asked.

“No. We have 500 trial slots that nobody is using,” he responded.

In 2017, Pierson told lawmakers that the Angelos firm had missed out on 2,888 trial opportunities for its asbestosis and lung cancer claims since 2008.

Instead, the firm wanted SB1049 to send thousands of cases to mediation before an office created by the bill. If one side wasn’t happy with the result, it could request a trial, the bill said.

In recent years, the Angelos firm was unsuccessful in its attempt to have its cases consolidated, but the highest state court gave it a favorable ruling in 2018 regarding how long plaintiffs have to bring suit after their alleged injuries.

The Angelos firm had supported unsuccessful legislation in 2017 that would have done what that 2018 ruling ended up doing.

Defendants and their insurers and lawyers opposed this year’s mediation bill, as did the Maryland State Bar Association, though the MSBA did for different reasons. Chief among them is that the bill would have applied retroactively to existing cases.

Also, the office that would have overseen the mediation would have been a part of the executive branch, leaving the judicial branch mostly out of the decision-making process.

Judge Pierson says rules implemented in 2017 have been effective in handling the backlog, and numbers point to a decline in new cases.

Numbers show the Angelos firm filed 310 cases in 2018, down from more than 500 in both 2015 and 2013. It had only seven new mesothelioma clients in 2018. Meso claims are the most expensive for defendants, as the disease is often painful and relatively quickly fatal.

The nation’s trial lawyers group, the American Association for Justice, and the Maryland Association for Justice, the state’s trial lawyers group, supported the bill.

“By streamlining the resolution of these cases, which continue to clog the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, the General Assembly can not only positively impact the lives of asbestos victims and their surviving family members, but also make scarce judicial resources available to address civil and criminal matters more efficiently and effectively,” the MAJ wrote in its position paper.

Zirkin, the committee chair, had expressed his desire to get something accomplished by the end of the session to get “these individuals in court if they want to be in court.”

The amendment passed by the House, that the Senate didn’t act on, would have created the Joint Committee on Asbestos Litigation Oversight.

The committee would have been made of five members of the Senate and five of the House. Also, lawmakers would have appointed a member from the Maryland State Bar Association, a member from the Maryland Association for Justice and a member from the Maryland Defense Counsel.

Two other members would have been retired judges appointed by the chief judge of the Court of Appeals.

From Legal Newsline: Reach editor John O’Brien at john.obrien@therecordinc.com.

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General Assembly of Maryland The Law Offices of Peter Angelos

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