In a recent controversial opinion that allowed insurers and business owners to breath a huge sigh of relief, Maryland’s highest court upheld the constitutionality of Maryland’s cap on non-economic damages, meaning that a plaintiff’s claim for pain and suffering damages is limited regardless of what a jury awards.
In the summer of 2006, a five-year-old boy accidentally drowned in a country club swimming pool in Anne Arundel County. The boy’s parents sued the swimming pool management company for negligence. The parents won and the jury awarded them over $4 million for their mental anguish from the death of their child. Because of Maryland’s law that sets a cap on non-economic damages (pain and suffering, as opposed to medical expenses and lost wages), the trial court reduced the verdict to just over $1 million. The parents appealed and argued that the statutory cap was unconstitutional.
The court rejected the parents’ argument on the basis that it had already decided the same issue years before. In two previous cases, the court upheld the constitutionality of the damage cap after similar attacks. The court said that it would only overturn these decisions if they were clearly wrong and contrary to established principles of law, or if significant changes in the law since the earlier cases had made the decisions in those cases invalid. The court determined that neither exception applied, and its decision in the earlier cases would be upheld .
The court also ruled that the cap was not a violation of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The parents claimed that the cap created different and unfair classifications of injured plaintiffs – those with less serious injuries get to keep all of the money that the jury awards them, but more seriously injured plaintiffs do not. The court did not accept that argument. Because the Maryland Legislature’s rationale was that a damage cap would help provide better insurance premiums and coverage, there was a rational basis for the law, and it did not violate the Constitution.
This decision was a major victory for the Maryland insurance industry and the tort reform movement. Plaintiffs’ lawyers and other personal injury advocates have long argued that statutory caps are unfair because they prevent the most seriously injured plaintiffs from being properly compensated. The court’s decision, however, makes it clear that Maryland’s damage cap will continue in place.