Caps on Wrongful Death and Medical Malpractice Severely Limit Recoveries for Pain and Suffering (Non-Economic Damages)
In 2006, five year old Connor Freed tragically drowned in a country club swimming pool. Connor’s parents, the Freed family, successfully sued the pool company and were awarded by a jury over $4 million in damages for their grief and mental anguish.
Even though the jury found the pool company liable for $4 million, due to Maryland’s cap on all non-economic damages, the award was reduced to just over $1 million. In 2006, the cap on a victim’s wrongful death with two or more survivors was $1.02 million.
The Maryland Cap on Non-Economic Damages was put in place in 1986. In 1994, the cap was raised from $350,000 to $500,000, with an increase of $15,000 each year on October 1. The cap was put in place on the theory that liability insurance would be more affordable and accessible to individuals and organizations that need it.
The Freed family challenged the constitutionality of this cap with Maryland’s Highest Court, the Court of Appeals (DRD Pool Service v. Freed). They argued that this cap violated the right to redress (Article 19), the right to a jury trial (Articles 5 and 23) of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and the guarantee of equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Appeals Court claimed that stare decisis (to stand by the thing decided) was the basis for their determination as to whether they would overturn this precedent, since they had already upheld the constitutionality of it on two other occasions (Oaks v. Connors and Murphy v. Edmunds). The Court stated that it is only appropriate to overturn a precedent when the decision is clearly wrong and contrary to established principles or when significant changes in other laws or facts invalidate the precedent.
The Court found that this cap did not violate either circumstance, and stare decisis would not be abandoned. The Court further held that this cap did not interfere with the right to a trial by jury, as a jury of one’s peers still evaluates the facts presented and evaluates the negligence of the parties. The Court concluded that the cap did not prevent a plaintiff from full redress; it simply modifies the law of damages to be applied in tort cases.
The Court also ruled that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution– the guarantee of equal protection- was not violated. The Freeds argued that those who are less seriously injury are entitled to keep everything awarded by a jury for non-economic damages, while those who are more seriously injured and deserving of more are limited by the cap; thus creating a clear classification and violation. While the Court agreed that this cap would technically favor one party over another, it did not create a classification that would justify heightened scrutiny or review.
Insurance companies and big business argue that other States should implement caps. They contend that caps are necessary to curtail jury awards that they believe are too high to appropriately compensate the injured party. This argument, however, is invalid.
In most States, higher courts act as a safeguard to evaluate whether a jury’s award for non-economic damages is excessive or fair and reasonable. If a defendant believes that a damage award is too high, the defendant has a right to appeal the decision to the Appellate Court. In most instances, the Appellate Court will issue a well reasoned decision outlining the factors involved in maintaining, reducing or increasing a jury’s award.
Simply put, a cap on non-economic damages hinders one’s rights and circumvents the role of a jury. Fortunately, the Citizens of New York and New Jersey have curtailed any effort to put in place caps on recoverable damages for victims of medical malpractice, personal injury or wrongful death.
You can view a full transcript of the DRD Pool Service v. Freed by clicking on the name.
For a summary of New York malpractice law, check out the link.