Last night, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November raising the jury prayer amount in civil cases. Currently, in any civil case filed seeking more than $10,000.00, the defendant has a right to a jury trial. This provision does not have an escalator allowing it to rise along with the cost of medical care and wages lost.
This bill will permit a Constitutional amendment raising that amount to $15,000.00. Because this law relates to a constitutional amendment, it needed a 2/3 majority to pass. It will now appear on the ballot in November’s general election, where it will hopefully be approved by the voters.
This is an important issue for car accident lawyers in Maryland. As an example, consider a typical soft-tissue injury case. There is an emergency room visit with X-rays and a bill from the ER physician. That’s about $800, conservatively. The client needs 8 weeks of follow-up physical therapy. That’s about $4600. Then include two weeks missed from work, at about $1400 total. That’s $6800 in out of pocket losses. If the client needs an MRI to rule out a structural problem, you are looking at $8,000 in out of pocket damages for a relatively uncomplicated sprain/strain case. Filing for $10,000 does not really provide the potential to make a recovery to adequately compensate that client. But filing for more means that the defendant may pray a jury trial and delay the case for up to a year waiting for a trial date in Circuit Court, and requiring expensive, time-consuming discovery. The plaintiff may need to miss even more time from work to appear at a deposition, a court-ordered medical exam, and a settlement conference.
If the voters approve the proposed change, that case can be filed in District Court for $15,000.00 and it will stay there. This is a good change. It will keep less serious cases from clogging the Circuit Courts and will relieve our jurors of the burden of appearing to hear these cases. A jury demand is also used tactically by defense attorneys and auto insurers in cases in this value range.
In a county with a conservative jury pool, any case over 10k will almost always result in a jury demand. This means expensive discovery, delay, and the prospect of trying the case before a panel of jurors who may very well believe their time is being wasted on a case of that size. These cases can also be more difficult to try before a jury because of the nature of the injury claimed. A muscle strain can be very painful and can take a few months to resolve. It also does not show up on an X-ray or MRI. Even if you achieve a satisfactory result for the client, you have taken a year to do what should have been done in six months. Of course, in counties where the jury pool is perceived as being more plaintiff-friendly, jury demands are much less common.
Hopefully Maryland’s voters will make the right choice. In the context of a modern economy, $15,000 is not the huge sum it once was. The change will allow the District Court to fulfill its purpose of resolving less serious cases in a fair and expedient manner with as little cost as possible.
Look for more on this issue as the November election approaches.