Consumer advocate Ralph Nader found a receptive audience among the lawyer-members of the House Judiciary Committee today when he testified against a measure that would sharply limit jury awards and legal fees in lawsuits against counties and municipalities.
Disputing earlier testimony that a "crisis" of increasingly high jury awards has caused insurance companies to lose profits and drop out of the market, Nader said, "I don't believe that the industry is in any sort of crisis except a credibility crisis, wasting the time of legislators like yourself all over the country."
The measure is one of a package of bills submitted this year in an effort to curb skyrocketing insurance premiums against businesses, governments and professionals. Today, several of the 14 lawyers on the 22-member panel directed pointed questions at supporters of the bill, who included representatives of several counties and the Maryland Municipal League.
"What if a city truck crashes into five cars?" asked Del. Arthur Alperstein (D-Baltimore County), an attorney and vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "There's a five-car pileup, the cars burst into flames. It happened in Baltimore County on a foggy day. So no matter how many people are involved, now matter how badly they're burned up, you'd say, 'Here's $100,000, split it up.' "
Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran, who chaired a task force that came up with some of the insurance proposals, noted that the bill would give local governments the same $100,000 limit on damage awards that the state government now gets.
The measure also would ban the award of punitive damages against a local government; require that governments insure their employes against damages incurred in the course of their jobs, and limit legal fees to 20 percent of a settlement or 25 percent of a jury award in a lawsuit against a local government.
Supporters said that the measure would give insurers greater predictability over future losses and would encourage more of them to sell policies to local governments. They also said it would allow some municipalities to insure themselves at lower cost.
Several members of the committee said Nader's testimony was persuasive. "I think it's pretty clear to everybody the problem is just what Nader said," said Del. Ralph Hughes (D-Baltimore), a nonpracticing attorney. "Lawyers on the committee are basically against reform," Hughes said.
Said Del. Richard Palumbo (D-Prince George's): "I agree with [Nader]. He moved the committee, you could tell . . . . [The bills] are all in trouble."