Bill would allow lawsuits that don't specify damages


ANNAPOLIS -- Critics call the bill a boon for lawyers.

Supporters say it will keep ambulance chasers out of the headlines.

The House of Delegates is so suspicious that backers have postponed a vote on the bill to keep it from possible defeat.

What's the fuss about? A little bill that would let attorneys file damage suits without specifying how much money their clients are seeking.

It sounds simple enough, and supporters say it will discourage publicity hounds who file suits asking for outrageous sums just to get their names in the newspaper.

But there's a catch -- one that could drum up business for lawyers already hurting for work during the recession, according to legislative opponents and lobbyists for the insurance industry.

"In a sense this is a bill that forces people to get a lawyer to protect themselves because they don't know what their exposure is," said Del. Theodore Levin, a Baltimore County Democrat and himself a lawyer.

"It's as if you got a monthly bill from Visa and it said, 'You owe us lots of money but we won't tell you how much it is.' "

Faced with a suit seeking potentially unlimited damages, a panicky defendant may hire an attorney even though he doesn't need one, Mr. Levin said.

Mr. Levin's objections prompted the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Del. John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, to postpone the final vote from Friday to Tuesday. In the meantime, he said, he'll work on amendments to make the measure more acceptable.

It's unusual for a committee chairman to amend a bill scheduled for a final vote, especially this one, which flew through Mr. Arnick's lawyer-dominated panel without opposition.

Mr. Arnick and the bill's sponsor, Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, say the bill is aimed at legal reform, not lawyer enrichment.

But the mechanics of the bill raise questions for the insurance industry. Its lobbyists offer this scenario:

You dent someone's fender and he sues you in Circuit Court. Under current law, the suit must say whether the plaintiff wants $20,000 or $20 million.

If the amount was within the coverage limits of your insurance policy, you'd probably let your insurance company handle the matter.

Insurance companies usually advise clients to hire a lawyer only if they're being sued for more than their coverage limits, said Leo W. Doyle, lobbyist for the regional office of National Association of Independent Insurers, whose members include Allstate and GEICO.

But if this bill becomes law, insurance companies probably will tell clients to hire a lawyer almost every time they're sued because the firms won't know how much the plaintiffs want, Mr. Doyle said.

"That would emasculate the effect of the insuring contract," he said.

Not to mention providing a lot of new business for lawyers.

Leo Doyle and his brother, American Insurance Association lobbyist James J. Doyle Jr., said they didn't oppose the bill at its committee hearing because they weren't aware of its effect.

"That slipped through the cracks," Leo Doyle said.

Both said they would oppose the bill if it survives the House and goes to the Senate.

But attorneys say the bill is solid and wonder what the insurance industry is griping about.

The Maryland Trial Lawyers Association sees no problem. "The amount you sue for has no relationship to the amount you [ultimately] ask for," said its lobbyist, Dennis McCoy.

The bill is not something that would cause the guy in the street concern," Mr. McCoy said.

The Maryland State Bar Association likes the bill because it would protect attorneys from being sued for malpractice by clients who don't think they asked for enough money.

But opponents say lawyers already have the power to amend client's suits in cases, for example, in which an injured or ailing plaintiff takes a turn for the worse and needs more money to pay medical bills.

Mr. Montague, who sponsored the bill, said it would help lawyers whose clients get too excited by the excessively high sums they're requesting in their suits.

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