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Will Maryland’s Top Court Go All “Dukes of Hazzard” On Damages Caps?

Maybe Georgia hates plaintiffs less than I thought.

They have a “tort reform” law that limits non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases to an unconscionable $350,000. They also have a state constitution that says that “the right to a trial by jury shall remain inviolate.” The Georgia Supreme Court recently held the cap to be unconstitutional, stating that “[t]he very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury.” It is nice to see an appellate court take its role seriously in ensuring that legislative mandates conform to constitutional requirements.

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But I don’t practice law in Georgia. I am stuck here in Maryland, wishing that the Court of Appeals of Maryland had shown the same courage as the Georgia Supreme Court. But alas, the Court of Appeals of Maryland considered the exact same constitutional argument and rejected it in Murphy v. Edmonds, 325 Md. 342, 601 A.2d 102 (1990). Our court defied logic, and held that as long as the jury determines the plaintiff’s damages, the right to a jury trial is not impaired when a statute arbitrarily reduces the jury’s award to a predetermined amount having nothing to do with the damages in the case.

I swear, I am not making this up. This is what the Court of Appeals of Maryland said in Edmonds:

“Section 11-108 fully preserves the right of having a jury resolve the factual issues with regard to the amount of noneconomic damages. Neither the $350,000 limit on recovery nor the provision that the jury shall not be informed of the limit, interferes with the jury’s proper role and its ability to resolve the factual issues which are pertinent to the cause of action.”

Basically, as long as the jury determines the damages, the Court of Appeals says that it is irrelevant that the jury’s verdict will be arbitrarily ignored, and it is irrelevant that they will not be told this will happen.

It isn’t just me thinking the Maryland ruling is illogical and legally unsupported. The Georgia Supreme Court considered the Court of Appeals’ holding in Edmonds and called it “unpersuasive reasoning.”

But wait! The Court of Appeals of Maryland has a chance to fix its mistake. On April 2, 2010, the court will hear arguments in DRD Pool Service, Inc. v. Freed. That case has a constitutional challenge to the non-economic damages cap in non-medical malpractice cases. Hopefully, the court will get it right this time and do away with a law that does a terrible injustice to the most seriously injured Marylanders.

Our system of justice places an immense amount of trust in juries. Juries decide whether people live or die, go to prison, or remain free. Why do we no longer trust them to determine damages? Presumably, the right to a jury trial was pretty important since they put it in the very document that provides for our system of government. Hopefully, our courts will restore the will of the jury to its rightful place in our civil justice system.

But I’m not holding my breath.  2018: Update: We know that the court did not disturb the cap in Freed.   But in 2016 a jury awarded our clients $10 million.  We are fighting to overturn the cap on appeal from a new angle.  You never can tell what will happen.  But are the odds against us? Of course they are.