COMPANIES THAT buy the settlement rights to lawsuits argue that Maryland’s proposal of new rules to govern these transactions will lead to prolonged court proceedings that could delay, or even derail, the sales. Let us hope so. The slapdash way Maryland courts have approved these questionable arrangements has allowed vulnerable people to be exploited. The need for new safeguards for an industry that has profited from the poor and the disabled is clear.
The rules committee of the Maryland Court of Appeals has recommended changes in the review and approval of structured settlement buyouts, in which people with court-awarded settlements paid out monthly receive lump-sum payments from companies that, in exchange, gain rights to the proceeds. The impetus for reform followed a report in August by The Post detailing how lead paint victims in Baltimore were preyed upon by companies that paid them a tiny fraction of the value of their settlements: One case saw a seller getting 9 cents on the dollar. Robbed of their futures because of their childhood exposure to lead, victims were then robbed of the money that was supposed to sustain them through the years.
The Maryland General Assembly enacted a law in 2000 requiring the courts to decide if a deal was in the best interests of the seller. But as the rules committee noted in a report released last month, there were gaps in procedure that allowed companies “to take improper advantage of vulnerable recipients.” The committee determined it was within the purview of the court to tighten and fine-tune its rules to try to prevent abuses. Among the recommendations are the requirement that all petitions be filed in the jurisdiction where the seller lives, that the seller be present in court and that companies disclose whether the case involves any claim of lead paint poisoning or mental impairment.
Most critical is the panel’s proposal for greater disclosure about the professional advisers who are supposed to be independent in advising sellers on their best interests. As The Post’s investigation showed, many seemed far more interested in helping companies close deals.
The recommendations, which we urge the court to approve when it meets this month, are an important step. But Maryland officials also need to determine if other reforms are needed to provide oversight that could stop the predatory abuses of this industry — and if there is any way for the people who have been victimized to get redress.
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