The Maryland Court of Appeals has determined that a statutory cap on non-economic damages does not violate a plaintiff’s constitutional rights. DRD Pool Serv., Inc. v. Freed, No. 104-2009 (Md., decided September 24, 2010). The issue arose in a case alleging negligent pool maintenance in the drowning death of a 5-year-old boy. A jury awarded the child’s parents more than $4 million, which was reduced to about $1 million under a damages cap in effect in the state since 1986 and applicable to non-economic damages in wrongful death cases since 1994. The parents challenged the cap’s constitutionality on appeal, claiming that it violated their right to a jury trial.
The court had previously upheld the cap and determined that stare decisis principles constrained it from overruling prior case law except on the narrowest grounds. According to the court, the cap does not affect the right to a jury trial “because plaintiffs will still have a jury determine the facts and assess liability.” The General Assembly has the authority in Maryland to “modify common law rights and remedies” and “[s]uch changes will invariably favor one party to the disadvantage of another in litigation,” stated the court. Still, the court found that this result did not create “a classification,” requiring heightened scrutiny, between affected parties. Using a rational basis standard to assess the statute’s constitutionality, the court found nothing had changed in the 17 years since it last upheld the law, and the underlying rationale and “the Cap itself have become embedded in the bedrock of Maryland law.” Opining that the cap “continues to serve a legitimate government purpose, the court affirmed a lower court’s decision to deny the parents’ motion to amend or alter the judgment.
Shook, Hardy & Bacon Public Policy attorneys Mark Behrens, Philip Goldberg and Cary Silverman filed an amicus brief in the matter on behalf of a number of business-related interests, in support of the defendant’s position that the cap should be upheld. Those amici included the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, American Tort Reform Association, American Trucking Associations, American Chemistry Council, and National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.