Changes sought in Md. bill on asbestos lawsuits


ANNAPOLIS -- Representatives of local governments in Maryland warned yesterday that unless certain changes are made in a Schaefer administration bill concerning asbestos lawsuits, about $75 million in damage claims will be beyond the ** reach of the governments.

H.B. 496 would change Maryland's statute of repose, which gives some defendants relief from lawsuits after 20 years from the date of an alleged injury.

The alleged injury in the case of H.B. 496 resulted from the installation of asbestos products in hundreds of publicly-owned buildings for much of the first half of the century. The product, which was used for fireproofing, was found to cause fatal lung and stomach-related diseases.

As a result, the owners of buildings with asbestos have been spending millions of dollars to remove it, and they have turned to the courts to force the manufacturers to pay.

The statute of repose, however, protects building-product manufacturers once 20 years have elapsed since the building became available for use. H.B. 496 would limit that protection to buildings opened after July 1, 1953, an extension of nearly 20 years. The extension would apply, however, only to buildings owned by governments, and then only if the lawsuit was filed by July 1, 1993.

Representatives of local governments urged the House Judiciary Committee yesterday to push the date back to Jan. 1, 1950, to include about $20 million more in claims.

And Linda Barclay, senior solicitor for Baltimore, said that if the bill is changed to allow plaintiffs to reinstate claims on buildings that have been dismissed from current lawsuits, the city could seek to recover an additional $20 million from manufacturers.

Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties could seek to recover a total of $35 million if that change was made.

Joseph A. Schwartz III, a lobbyist who represents a group of former asbestos manufacturers, likened that suggestion to changing the rules in the middle of a game.

"If I came down on behalf of those companies I'm representing," he said, "and asked you to change the law so I can sue more people, you'd say I was crazy."

There have also been about 10,000 personal-injury cases involving asbestos filed in Maryland's courts. The administration bill would allow the roughly 5 percent of people with claims that were barred by a recent court decision to proceed with their lawsuits. They include people who were exposed to asbestos after buildings were completed, such as janitors or teachers.

A similar bill passed the General Assembly last year, but Gov. William Donald Schaefer vetoed it.

"I must assure you, it was one of the most difficult vetoes he issued," said David Iannucci, Mr. Schaefer's chief legislative officer. "The governor when he vetoed the bill made a promise to work out a compromise."

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