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Maryland Court of Appeals Upholds Statutory Damages Cap

Last year brought one significant disappointing legal development for Maryland personal injury victims and wrongful death survivors. While plaintiffs in Illinois and Georgia received news from their state's highest courts that damages should be determined by juries rather than politicians, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion that upheld the cap on damages passed by the state legislature over two decades ago. Insurance companies and other "tort reform" advocates were understandably pleased with the court's failure to revisit the constitutionality of section 11-108 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article.

In DRD Pool Service Inc. v. Freed, the Maryland Court of Appeals considered an appeal from a Court of Special Appeals decision involving a fatal swimming pool accident. The case involved two distinct issues surrounding a five-year-old boy's drowning death: whether the jury could consider pain and suffering damages if no one had seen the boy drown, and whether Maryland's statutory cap on non-economic damages is constitutional under the Maryland Declaration of Rights and the U.S. Constitution.

Maryland's statutory damages cap went into effect in 1986, and initially limited non-economic damages to $350,000 in personal injury lawsuits. (Non-economic damages include mental anguish, pain and suffering, and other damages not associated with direct financial losses such as medical expenses and lost income.) The legislature increased the cap to $500,000 in 1994 while also extending it to wrongful death actions, and included a provision that increased the cap by $15,000 every year.

Damages Should Reflect the Harm Caused by a Party's Negligence

The parents of the boy were awarded just over $4 million in damages after the jury found that the pool maintenance company's negligence was a proximate cause of their son's death. But the trial judge reduced that amount by slightly more than $3 million pursuant to section 11-108. The parents' appeal was based on two separate but compelling ideas. First, the damages cap directly interfered with their right to have a jury determine essential aspects of their case. Second, the statute implicated their equal protection rights, because it only affects plaintiffs in cases with serious injuries, while those with relatively minor injuries are not subject to damages limitations.

Like the lower court, the Court of Appeals decided in favor of the parents on the issue of whether pain and suffering damages were properly before the jury. But the court deferred to its own previous decisions in 1992 and 1995 that had upheld the constitutionality of the damages cap, citing the concept of stare decisis, which means "to stand by the thing decided."

The court found that while it had never found the doctrine to prohibit "changing or modifying a common law rule when conditions have changed or that rule has become so unsound that it is no longer suitable to the people of this State, departure from the rule should be the extraordinary case."

Experienced Counsel Can Help a Client Seek Sufficient Damages

While many personal injury and wrongful death cases settle before going to court, clients should always enlist the services of trial-tested lawyers in the event that protracted litigation becomes necessary. In the Freed case, that meant nearly five years for the parents to finally put the legal aspects of their tragic loss behind them.

The need for dedicated advocacy is the same regardless of whether the harm resulted from a car accident, truck accident, work accident, medical malpractice, a dog bite, or a slip and fall. Proof of damages involves complex issues and ever-evolving legal concepts. A plaintiff's interests hang in the balance when a trial judge makes a decision that significantly limits the potential for securing compensation.

The Maryland Court of Appeals' recent decision did not reverse two and a half decades of unfair limitations on plaintiffs' rights to compensation. Barriers to recovery of the full value of non-economic damages make it all the more vital to enlist an experienced Maryland personal injury law firm. A civil claims attorney must be able to assess the full extent of harm and anticipate a client's long-term needs in the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury or other serious injury to ensure full compensation for medical expenses, lost income, disability and other losses.