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Maryland Court of Appeals Applies Noneconomic Damages Cap to Intentional Tort Claims

By: Scott Patrick Burns and Gregory C. Mullen

For the first time, the Maryland Court of Appeals clarifies that the noneconomic damages cap applies to intentional tort and gross negligence claims.

Md. Code, Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, §11-108 limits the amount of noneconomic damages recoverable in personal injury and wrongful death actions that arise after July 1, 1986, and October 1, 1994, respectively (the “Cap”).  In Rodriguez v. Cooper, No. 27, September Term, 2017 (2018 Md. LEXIS 185 / 2018 WL 1748230), the Court of Appeals held for the first time that the Cap applies to claims based on intentional tort and gross negligence.  In so ruling, the Court overruled the Court of Special Appeals’ decision in Cole v. Sullivan, 110 Md. App. 79 (1996) that intentional tort claims were excluded from the scope of the Cap.

In Rodriquez, an inmate was murdered by a fellow inmate on a transport bus in 2005.  The jury found one of four defendant correctional officers to be grossly negligent and awarded approximately $18.5 million in noneconomic damages.  On remand after the appeal of other issues, the Circuit Court granted the grossly negligent officer’s remittitur to reduce the judgment to $1,625,000.00, the amount permitted under the Cap.  The plaintiffs appealed and argued, among other things, that the application of the Cap to the claim against the grossly negligent correctional officer was incorrect.

The Court of Appeals, in what it viewed as a case of first impression before it, rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the cap does not apply to grossly negligent defendants.  In so ruling, the Court first emphasized the Cap’s plain and broad language that it applies broadly “in any action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death.”  The Court then rejected plaintiffs’ argument, embodied in the Court of Special Appeals’ 1996 decision in Cole v. Sullivan, that the Cap did not apply to intentional tort claims because the Cap was enacted in response to a medical malpractice insurance premium crisis and insurance policies typically exclude coverage for intentional torts.  The Court noted that it had never adopted the holding or rationale of Cole v. Sullivan.  The Court of Appeals explained that the Cap’s legislative history did not indicate an intention to exclude judgments arising from intentional or grossly negligent conduct or to make insurability of the injury a prerequisite for application of the Cap.  The Court further noted that in 1994 the Legislature expanded the Cap to cover wrongful death claims and that under Maryland’s Wrongful Death statute such a claim may be based on a “felonious act” and thus is not limited to negligent acts.  Accordingly, the Court declined to adopt such a qualification in the Cap statute. 

By holding that the Cap on noneconomic damages in personal injury and wrongful death actions applies to intentional torts and grossly negligent acts, the Court of Appeals has sent a strong message to tort claimants in Maryland that the Cap on noneconomic damages -- such as mental and physical pain and suffering, and loss of consortium -- is a complete and total limit on those damages.

If you have any questions about this ruling or would like additional information, please contact Scott Patrick Burns, Gregory C. Mullen, or a member of Tydings’ litigation department or products liability group.

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