YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Wilson Signs Bill to Allow Suits Against Drug Dealers

September 25, 1996| From Associated Press

Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill Tuesday that will allow people and businesses to sue drug dealers for harm caused by illegal substances.

"We're gonna financially bankrupt these leeches," Wilson said.

The bill was inspired by the suicide of actor Carroll O'Connor's son, who killed himself last year after battling drug problems.

"This morning we take . . . a particularly important step in rooting drug dealers out of society and making sure they can't profit from their crimes," Wilson said before signing the bill at Glendale Adventist Medical Center.

The bill holds drug dealers to the same liability standard to which other businesses in California are held. It takes effect Jan. 1.

If dealers are found to have caused damage or injury by selling drugs, family members, employers, medical facilities, insurers and victims of users' reckless actions can sue.

Even people who use drugs can sue their dealers--but only to recover economic damages and lawyers' fees. A person who believes he or she was injured while in the womb can also sue.

"One of the things we must do is not only convince young people that drugs aren't cool, they're not safe, they're not smart, but we've got to take the profit out of dealing," Wilson said.

"Anyone who tries to make a buck by getting other people high will be treated as they deserve to be--as the lowest of the low," he said.

Wilson toured a neonatal intensive care unit before signing the bill, peering into "isolettes" where undersized infants, the smallest weighing 2 pounds, 5 ounces, slept.

Crammed into the unit was enough high-tech equipment to fill a space station. Baby blankets were draped on some of the devices.

A drug-addicted baby is born at the hospital once every 10 days, officials said. Caring for the infants costs $200,000 to $250,000, they said.

The bill is intended to allow hospitals to recover some of those costs by suing drug dealers.

Dr. Ronald Kaufman, chief of staff at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, said half the trauma cases there are related to drug and alcohol abuse.

Kaufman said it would be up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether to sue dealers. "It seems like a really nice opportunity," he said.

O'Connor, who played Archie Bunker in the television show "All in the Family," backed the bill because his son, Hugh, killed himself in 1995. Harry Perzigian was convicted of selling drugs to Hugh O'Connor and was sentenced to a year in jail in January.

O'Connor said in June that he would sue Perzigian "up the bazoo" if the bill became law. But Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren said the law would not be retroactive.

O'Connor was in New York on Tuesday. His spokesman, Frank Tobin, did not have a response from the actor.

Wilson said of O'Connor: "He has perhaps played his greatest, most important role in having the courage to go public with his own suffering and not simply to suffer in silence. He has fought back, he has insisted on justice for his own lost son."

California is the sixth state to enact such legislation, said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier).

Los Angeles Times Articles