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Maryland Damage Cap Upheld on Appeal in Wrongful Death Suit

The Maryland Court of Appeals has rejected a challenge to the state’s cap on non-economic damages, which limits the amount of compensation plaintiffs can be awarded for pain and suffering in Maryland injury lawsuits

The review was the first time in 15 years that the court considered the constitutionality of the damage cap in Maryland. It was brought by Thomas Freed and Debbie Neagle-Freed, who were awarded about $4 million by a jury after their 5-year-old boy, Conner Freed, drowned in a Crofton swimming pool in 2006. Pursuant to the state cap, the judge reduced the damages to about $1.3 million.

The Freed’s argued that the application of the Maryland damage cap violated their right to a jury trial. In a 6-1 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals rejected the appeal, upholding the damage cap. The ruling runs counter to a number of cases in other states that have abolished or limited similar caps.

About 30 states currently have damage caps in some form, but they have increasingly been challenged by plaintiffs with medical malpractice lawsuits. State Supreme Courts in Illinois and Georgia have thrown out similar damages caps over the last year, saying that the imposition of caps by the state legislatures violated the plaintiffs’ rights to a trial by jury, since the cap overrode the jury’s judgment on what the compensation for those cases should be.

The Maryland non-economic damage cap was established in 1986, and specifies that a jury’s award for non-economic damages cannot exceed an amount that increases modestly every year. Currently, the cap is set at $725,000, but at the time of Freed’s death it was $665,000. However, in wrongful death lawsuits where there is more than one beneficiary, the damages are limited to one and a half times the damage cap.

When awarding damages in Maryland lawsuits, jurors are not informed about the cap, which has survived several challenges in the past.

California was the first state to enact a damage cap in 1975, specifically limiting the non-economic damages in medical malpractice lawsuits. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2005 ten states capped recoveries specifically on medical malpractice cases and another 22 have caps that are not limited to medical malpractice, like Maryland. About a dozen states also have caps on punitive damages.

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