Schaefer to sponsor modified asbestos-lawsuit bill


ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer has agreed to sponsor a bill that would allow individuals and state and local governments to try to recoup potentially hundreds of millions of dollars from asbestos manufacturers and distributors.

Last year the governor vetoed a slightly different bill.

One change in the legislation that is important to the governor is that it would specifically protect smaller distributors and retailers, such as Hechinger Co. and smaller hardware stores, from asbestos-related lawsuits, said David Iannucci, the governor's chief legislative officer.

The new bill, to be introduced Friday as part of Mr. Schaefer's overall legislative package, would change Maryland's "statute of repose," which protects building manufacturers and their insurers from lawsuits filed more than 20 years after the buildings were completed.

The intent of the law, passed in 1970, was to give manufacturers "repose" from lawsuits after a reasonable time. The architects, engineers and building contractors involved in construction were covered by a similar law that prevented litigation after only 10 years.

But because of the latency period associated with asbestos diseases, which can run into decades, some advocates for plaintiffs have argued that the repose law unfairly prevented them from seeking damages for their debilitating and often fatal afflictions.

This year's bill would address at least two issues Mr. Schaefer raised in an explanation of his veto last year, Mr. Iannucci said.

The bill would allow personal-injury lawsuits to be filed, regardless of the 20-year time limit, by the roughly 5 percent of people excluded by the current law, Mr. Iannucci said. And it would extend the number of years after completion of a building in which the building's owner could sue for the costs of removing asbestos from the buildings.

"We feel it [the law] has to provide finality and certainty for the litigants on all sides," Mr. Iannucci said. He said the administration is trying to reach a compromise this week on how long the statute should be extended.

"We're trying to come up with a fair date that gives some of the parties some breathing room, but probably not as much as they'd like," he said. "There are four or five parties in the ring, and the governor is wearing a black-and-white striped shirt." Mr. Iannucci said the bill would allow plaintiffs to revive lawsuits that were dismissed but are still being appealed.

Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist who represents some former manufacturers of asbestos products, said he hoped the governor "would keep this as narrow as possible. My clients obviously don't like the fact that the government can come and change rules of litigation after the fact."

However, Mr. Schwartz said he had no objection to a change in the law that would allow personal-injury plaintiffs to file suits well after the 20-year time limit. The real problems, he said, are the property-damage lawsuits, including those filed by the state, that are attempting to recoup potentially millions of dollars to pay for the removal of the asbestos from buildings.

Mr. Schaefer vetoed last year's bill only after two circuit court rulings allowed personal-injury lawsuits by about 95 percent of the individuals who wanted to sue building manufacturers, regardless of the 20-year deadline. Those people primarily consist of the construction workers who originally installed the asbestos products.

This year's bill will include most of the rest of those potential plaintiffs, including for example, janitors who worked in schools built with asbestos, Mr. Iannucci said.

The bill also would allow building owners, including the state, Baltimore and most of Maryland's 23 counties, to seek the costs of removing asbestos from the hundreds of buildings they own, even after the 20-year time limit had expired.

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