Maryland Court of Appeals Upholds Cap on Damages for Pain and Suffering

On Friday, September 24, 2010, the highest court in Maryland issued an opinion regarding the state’s statutory cap on noneconomic damages. In DRD Pool Service, Inc. v. Freed, et al., the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the state of Maryland may constitutionally cap the damages an injured person may receive even when a jury returns a verdict in excess of the statutory limit. As we discussed in an earlier post, the attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen Personal Injury Lawyers believe that this cap disproportionately hurts individuals who are the most severely injured.

In 1986, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation (currently codified at Maryland Courts and Judicial Proceedings § 11-108) that limits the amount of noneconomic damages an injured person can receive. By imposing this limitation, Maryland law makers intended to reduce the medical malpractice insurance premiums paid by physicians.

We believe that the cap had unfortunate consequences to people who suffer extreme losses, pain, suffering, or disfigurement. As of October 1, 2010, the statutory cap is set at $725,000 for an injured victim, or the estate of a decedent whose death was caused by the negligence of another person or corporation. While this may seem like a substantial sum of money, it leaves seriously injured people without just compensation for the harms inflicted by the negligent acts of others. Consider whether this amount would be sufficient to compensate for the loss suffered by the parents involved in DRD Pool Service, Inc. v. Freed.

On June 26, 2006, five year old Connor Freed went to the Crofton Country Club swimming pool in Anne Arundel County with a family friend and their two children. At some time during their visit, Connor had his life jacket removed so that he could go to the restroom. Unfortunately, Connor returned to the pool without putting the life jacket back on, and the little boy was subsequently found floating face down in the water. Conner’s parents brought suit against the operators of the pool, DRD Pool Service, alleging that DRD was negligent in failing to properly train its life guards. After hearing evidence during trial, a jury found that DRD was negligent, that the negligence was a proximate cause of Connor’s death, and awarded the Freeds $4,006,442 in damages for the wrongful death of their son. Pursuant to Maryland law, the trial judge reduced the verdict to $1,002,500.

On appeal, the parents asked the appellate courts to find that the 25 year old cap is in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Relying upon the principle of stare decisis (meaning “to stand by decisions”), the Court of Appeals refused to find that prior decisions upholding the legislation were wrong and upheld the limit on damages.

In his dissent, Judge Joseph Murphy adopted an earlier dissenting opinion issued by Judge Howard Chasanow. In that opinion, Judge Chasanow noted the following:

“There is a sad, even tragic, aspect of the class of tort victims who will be most significantly affected by the cap. It is obvious that those whose noneconomic damages will be greatest and who will lose the most by the cap will be those who must endure their injuries for the longest period of time. Infants with paralyzed or severed arms or legs, young children, hideously and permanently scarred or disfigured, youngsters with injuries that will cause them permanent excruciating and unremitting pain and who can be expected to suffer from these injuries over the full seventy-plus years of their probable lifetimes will be the ones with the highest noneconomic damages and, therefore, the ones most affected by the cap.”

Murphy v. Edmonds, 325 Md. 342, 378, 601 A.2d 102, 119 (J. Chasanow, dissenting).

While no amount of money can ever fully compensate a parent for the loss of a child, we believe that the jury who listens to evidence, hears the physical and emotional impact such a loss inflicts is in the best position to render a fair judgment–not the legislature.

External Sources

Baltimore Sun- “Maryland top court upholds limit on jury awards for pain and suffering”

Court of Appeals of Maryland- 2010 Index Listing of Maryland Appellate Court Opinions

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