A bill to grant the right to file lawsuits by people discriminated against in places of public accommodation — like restaurants, theaters, airports and hotels — is being smothered by Senate amendments seeking to water down the bill.

On Tuesday, Democratic Senate leaders and committee chairmen joined Republicans in passing an amendment by Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard-Carroll, to study the measure. The amendment will be reconsidered Wednesday, but Senate President Mike Miller told proponents they might want to find some alternative to passing the bill, which has had prolonged debate on five different days.

Senate chamber

The Senate chamber

A previous amendment from Kittleman to cap legal fees at 25% of any damages awarded was passed Monday night, then rejected on reconsideration Tuesday.

The bill maintains the current system for discrimination complaints. The complaint goes first to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which can mediate or find for the complainant, and then issue fines. The commission can also pursue damages in court.

But the bill would allow those who thought they were discriminated against to file a lawsuit on their own. Opponents of the bill have repeatedly said they are afraid unscrupulous attorneys would take advantage of the new law to make money off the plaintiff’s discrimination.

“They don’t like lawyers,” said Sen. Lisa Gladden, the bill’s sponsor. Gladden said the bill is intended to open up state courts to discrimination lawsuits, as is now permitted in federal courts. Gladden, a state public defender, said this is only a minor change. “This is about moving the car up the driveway to the garage.”

At its hearing, representatives of the National Federation for the Blind, the Maryland Disability Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Human Relations Commission testified for the bill, as did attorney Stuart Simms, a former state’s attorney in Baltimore and cabinet secretary for the Public Safety and Juvenile Services Departments.

“I think it’s a bunch of rubbish,” and “a very specious assertion” that many predatory lawsuits would be filed, Simms said. “There is no evidence to support that,” Simms said.

“This doesn’t add any particular impetus to creating a class action,” he said. The administrative process must still be followed and there would need to be “enough recovery to make it economically viable.”

Blind people who testified on the bill were especially concerned about getting access to airline websites and airport kiosks. That’s why an exemption for transportation services was removed from the bill.

The bill is being opposed by the Maryland Restaurant Association, the Maryland Tourism Council, the Hotel and Lodging Association, and other business groups who fear an increase in lawsuits.

—Len Lazarick