Liability cap affirmed by Maryland high court

Doctors say the ruling acknowledges the significance of tort reforms in maintaining access to care.

By Amy Lynn Sorrel — Posted Oct. 14, 2010

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Maryland's highest court once again validated the constitutionality of the state's general liability cap in a decision physicians say recognizes the importance of such tort reforms in preserving access to care.

Adhering to its precedent upholding the 1986 law, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled 6-1 that the noneconomic damage cap in general personal injury cases, which stands at roughly $700,000, "continues to serve a legitimate government purpose" in keeping liability insurance costs in check. Physicians were concerned that a decision to overturn the statute could have meant a similar fate for a separate cap that governs medical liability cases. That cap also is about $700,000.

The Sept. 24 ruling in DRD Pool Service Inc. v. Freed came in a wrongful death case involving the drowning of Connor Freed, 5, in a country club pool in 2006. A jury awarded the boy's parents $4 million, but a trial judge reduced the verdict to $1 million based on the general pain and suffering cap.

An appeals court in 2009 rejected the Freeds' contention that the award limit violated their equal protection and jury trial rights. The high court agreed.

"The cap reflects a policy judgment by the General Assembly which does not interfere with the underlying right to a trial by jury, because plaintiffs will still have a jury determine the facts and assess liability," Judge Clayton Greene wrote for the majority.

The decision "is another validation of this proven legal reform," said American Medical Association President Cecil B. Wilson, MD. The Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies, along with MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the cap.

MedChi CEO Gene M. Ransom credited the 1986 law with keeping Maryland's liability climate stable through the years and preventing doctors from fleeing the state.

"We want to make sure [injured patients] are made as whole as possible," he said. "But if we have a lottery system, we make it impossible for doctors to pay for malpractice insurance, making it harder and harder to practice medicine. It's balancing those policy issues against one another," which is what the Legislature did.

However, a lone dissenting justice backed arguments by the Freeds and the trial bar that despite court precedent, the cap should be revisited because it discriminates against the most seriously injured, who cannot recover full damages.

Physicians expect the fight over such tort reform measures to continue this year in the Legislature, Ransom said.

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