ANNAPOLIS – The final hour of the 2019 Maryland General Assembly session was marked by the quiet demise of measures calling for a study of ways to reduce a docket of thousands of pending asbestos-exposure lawsuits and to double from 20 to 40 years the statute of limitations on lawsuits alleging child sexual abuse.
The proposed panel to examine the asbestos backlog was passed by the House of Delegates but never came to a vote in the Senate as that chamber broke at 11:20 p.m. to join the House in a tribute to its late speaker, Michael Busch, who died Sunday.
In the waning hours of the session, Senate and House conferees agreed to remove the House-approved limitations extension from legislation to enhance the penalties for violence against pregnant women.
The proposed but ill-fated 15-member asbestos panel of legislators, attorneys and judges was the brainchild of House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger.
The Baltimore Democrat developed the proposal after the plaintiffs’ bar-backed legislation to require asbestos claims to be mediated by an executive branch agency drew fierce opposition. Attorneys for defendant companies and the Judiciary contended the proposal violated the constitutional separation of powers by wresting control of the court docket from judges and giving it to an arm of the governor.
Clippinger said the Joint Committee on Asbestos Litigation would have helped the General Assembly in “figuring out what, if anything, we have to do next” to reduce the number of asbestos claims.
“This is a big issue,” Clippinger said. “This is a complicated issue.”
But Del. Susan McComas, R-Harford, said the amendment did not assuage concerns about abrogating the separation of powers, as the issue of handling a court’s docket should be left to judges.
“It’s still kind of playing in the sandbox of the Judiciary,” McComas said.
Opponents of the bill to extend the statute of limitation for claims of child sexual abuse said permitting defendants to be sued after 40 years would have violated their constitutional right to due process.
Generally, civil litigation must be filed no more than three years after the alleged victim knew or should have known he or she had a legal claim. Alleged child sex abuse victims are given 20 years from the time they reach 18 – that is, until age 38 — to file suit in recognition that victims of the childhood trauma take years to recover and gain the fortitude to sue.
Forty years, or until the alleged victim reaches age 58, would impose an unconstitutional burden on the defendant or the organization for which he or she worked, said opponents, including Sens. Michael Hough, R-Harford and Carroll; Justin Ready, R-Carroll; and Chris West, R-Baltimore County, all of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Del. C.T. Wilson, who shared with legislators his own experience as a victim of childhood sexual abuse to urge support for the measure, said he was not surprised the Senate would reject a move to extend the filing deadline. He noted that the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee had earlier this session rejected his proposal to eliminate the statute of limitations on child abuse claims altogether.
“I have no faith in JPR,” said Wilson, D-Charles.
But Wilson added the proposed doubling of the limitations period “shows that this House (of Delegates) does care” about child-abuse victims.
“The victims are getting a good message,” Wilson added. “The point is we’re trying.”