Maryland Statutory Damages Cap on Pain and Suffering Upheld – Surviving a Challenge to its Constitutionality

A Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the Maryland Intermediate Court of Appeals, recently declined a constitutional challenge to the state’s legal limit on noneconomic harm for illicit acts of personal injury. In a unanimous decision, the appellate court upheld that the court had reduced damages from $ 2.5 million for pain and suffering to $ 830,000 in a car accident.

In Crouell v. Turner, the plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident in May 2017 when a commercial vehicle crossed an average and hit her car[1]. After a lawsuit, the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her $ 314,470.45 for medical expenses, $ 2,500,000 for noneconomic damages and $ 3,000,000 for punitive damages. Following the ruling, the court applied the non-economic damage cap and reduced the award from $ 2,500,000 to $ 830,000. The legal limit was first enacted in 1986 and limited noneconomic damage related to personal injury or death to $ 350,000. The non-economic damage in a personal injury suit includes damage due to “pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of consortium or other non-financial injuries”.[2] The legal limit was changed in 1994 to increase the limit to $ 500,000 and the limit increases by an additional $ 15,000 for each year after 1994 that a cause of action arises.

Plaintiff alleged that the non-economic damage limit was unconstitutional because: (1) it violated the Maryland Constitution’s equality clause; (2) has violated a person’s right to legal proceeding; (3) and violate the separation of powers doctrine because the question of whether a judgment is excessive is by nature a judicial rather than a legislative function. The court disagreed, finding that Maryland’s Supreme Court has consistently upheld the constitutionality of the limit and that the court would follow that precedent.

First, the court found that the non-economic limitation of damages for personal injury and unlawful death does not violate the non-discrimination clause. Citing a precedent, the court reiterated that a statutory upper limit for non-economic damage that can be awarded does not trigger intensified scrutiny in an analysis of the violation of equal safeguards and is instead analyzed under a rational basis test. A basic rational test only requires a court to determine whether a law is rationally related to a legitimate government interest. The aim of the legal cap was to keep liability insurance costs at a reasonable level to cover personal injury claims that the court found reasonably related to a legitimate legislative objective. Therefore, the court rejected the argument that the upper limit violated the non-discrimination clause. Second, the limit did not violate an individual’s right to legal action, as the limitation on recovery did not affect the jury’s role and ability to resolve factual issues. The court also rejected the argument that failure to inform the jury about the cap compromised the jury’s ability to determine damage for the same reason. Third, the court rejected the argument that the ceiling interfered with the functioning of the judiciary and violated the doctrine of separation of powers. The precedent-based court ruled that the legislature’s power to create, amend, and abolish pleas did not affect the judiciary’s control over judicial proceedings. In a post-submission interview, the plaintiff’s attorney said he intended to appeal and continue to question the constitutionality of the legal limit in the Maryland Court of Appeals (the Maryland Supreme Court). This victory for defendants follows another Tennessee victory in which the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Tennessee non-economic damage limit[3].

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