Lawmakers Consider Measures to Block Y2K Litigation
By Jefferson Morley
Minimizing the possibility of widespread computer failures at the start of the year 2000 is not the only preoccupation of government and business leaders these days. Now many also are worried about how to handle the avalanche of lawsuits that would inevitably follow if computers fail.
The General Assembly is considering a variety of bills to give businesses, as well as state agencies, county governments and municipalities, protection from legal actions over computer failure.
The State of Maryland has spent more than $100 million over the past four years to reprogram or replace computers that recognize years by two digits. The fear is that unrepaired computers will treat the arrival of the year 2000 as if it were 1900 and malfunction.
"After all the work we've done, it seems ridiculous to allow government to be sued," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan (R-Montgomery). "We'll be suing ourselves."
Hogan has introduced a bill that would extend immunity to government agencies that take steps to prevent Y2K computer failures.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) and Sen. Richard Colburn (R-Dorchester), meanwhile, have introduced bills that would provide protection to private businesses.
Hearings on the bills in the General Assembly earlier this month provoked debate about who needs protection from the so-called Y2K problem.
The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Maryland Association of Hospitals and other private sector groups testified in favor of the bills introduced by Taylor and Colburn.
"These bills would give protection to persons who had done what a reasonable person would have done" to address the problem, said Miles Cole, the chamber's vice president for government relations.
Cole said the proposed legislation was written with the help of chamber members who have been studying the issue for the past year. "We're not talking about immunity," Cole said. "Our committee wanted to make sure that people who get protection have earned it."
Hogan said he did not include immunity for private businesses in his bill because the state has "little or no control over what businesses do to address the problem."
Hogan hopes to prevent lawsuits against the state for possible results of computer failures ranging from "people getting stuck in elevators to traffic lights going out to late pension and scholarship payments."
He said government agencies that make a good-faith effort to address computer problems should not face liability. He praised the state's Y2K efforts, saying, "On a scale of one to 10, we deserve an eight."
David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said his organization is supporting Hogan's bill because the public sector deserves "special consideration."
"This could very well be the equivalent of asbestos or the tobacco litigation for the new millennium," he said.
Officials in all three Southern Maryland counties said earlier this year that their computer systems will be ready when 2000 arrives and that they anticipate no operational problems.
Six states already have passed laws immunizing state and local governments from Y2K liability, according to the Information Technology Association of America, a trade organization. They are Virginia, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii and Nevada. Only Virginia and Nevada also extend protection to private-sector firms that provide computer services to the state.
The association's Web site (http://www.itaa.org) lists 40 states that are considering legislation related to Y2K liability.
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