Group rails against 'lawsuit abuse'

March 02, 1997


Staff Writer

When a woman slipped on ice outside of Richardson's Restaurant on Dual Highway recently, Robert Resh said he offered to cover her medical expenses.

She hired a lawyer instead, Resh said.

"Why is she hiring a lawyer?" said Resh, the eatery's vice president and one of the leaders behind a new group, Western Maryland Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.

"People should be entitled to medical (reimbursements), but should they get a gain? Should they get a financial award - or reward?"


Michael O'Connor, the group's executive director agrees: "No matter who wins and who loses, we all pay and we all lose."

The group emphasizes mediation and arbitration and implores fair-minded people to serve on juries.

Resh said his insurance costs have increased every year because of the cumulative effect of legal action taken against the restaurant.

Those pressures - as well as ones faced by farmers, distributors and others in business - drives up the price of a crabcake sandwich at Richardson's.

Citing statistics from the Center for American Business at Washington University, O'Connor said 20 percent of the costs of a $100 stepladder and half of a $200 football helmet can be traced to liability expenses.

But Janet Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the Maryland State Bar Association in Annapolis, said judges can toss out nuisance suits and sanction those who bring them.

Hagerstown attorney Martin Palmer conceded that civil suits lead to higher retail prices for consumers. But he said that is a "social cost" that ensures that food is good, products are safe and business practices are sound.

"It sounds like the same old song to me," Palmer said. "We have the best system in the world. God bless the juries. We don't ever want to change it."

What's more, some attorneys said there are pitfalls in many of the prescriptions for cutting down on unnecessary suits.

Lewis C. Metzner, a Hagerstown city councilman and attorney, said few people are willing to submit to binding arbitration. And mediation can actually increase time and costs, he said.

Metzner pointed to the Health Claims Arbitration Act, which was designed to resolve disputes before they reach court.

"What it's done is add three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the process," he said. "There's no simple fix."

But members of the lawsuit abuse group, which covers Frederick, Washington, Garrett and Allegany counties, said they hope to make a difference by appealing to personal behavior.

"We're calling on people to take personal responsibility when something goes wrong," O'Connor said.

Resh said he thinks television advertisements for personal injury lawyers and distrust of big business have fueled excessive jury awards - and made many hungry to sue.

Statistics bear that out to some degree. George Riggin Jr., the state court administrator, said there has been a 120 percent increase in civil suits in the last 20 years in Maryland.

Another possibility could be the number of lawyers. While Japan has relatively few attorneys, Riggin said Maryland certifies about 1,000 new lawyers a year.

"That's a lot of lawyers," he said.

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