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The Statutory Cap on Non-economic Damages Applies to Intentional Torts

August 5, 2020

Maryland’s highest court upheld the application of the statutory cap for non-economic damages in personal injury and wrongful death actions even where the defendant was found to be grossly negligent.  Rodriguez v. Cooper arises out of the murder of a prisoner by another prisoner while both were in State custody.  The victim’s Estate filed suit against the State and various employees of the State including Sgt. Cooper, a correctional officer.  The jury returned a verdict against the State finding that certain correctional officers were negligent and that Sgt. Cooper was grossly negligent.  The trial court limited the judgment against the State and against Sgt. Cooper pursuant to the statutory cap on non-economic damages.  The Estate appealed the decision of the trial court.  

Maryland has a maximum limit, or a “cap” on the amount of pain and suffering damages that a plaintiff can recover from an accident or incident.  Non-economic damages include all non-pecuniary damages such as physical and/or emotional pain and suffering, permanent disability, disfigurement, blindness, loss of a limb, paralysis, trauma, solatium, and loss of equilibrium.

The Estate argued that the statutory cap should not be applied to a judgment based on a finding of gross negligence which, the Estate argued, is the equivalent of an intentional act.  The Court pointed out that a finding that a person acted with gross negligence does not necessarily mean he acted intentionally.  Regardless, relying on the plain language and the legislative history of the statute, the Court of Appeals held that the there is no exception for intentional acts; rather, the cap applies in “any action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death.”  

In Maryland, jurors are not informed about the cap; instead, the cap is applied by the court, if necessary, after the jury has reached their verdict.  The Estate in this case also argued that Sgt. Cooper waived the application of the cap because he did not raise the issue during a previous appeal.  The Court ultimately determined that Sgt. Cooper had not waived the cap, but commented that it is not entirely clear that a litigant has the ability to do so as the statute clearly provides that a non-economic damages award “may not exceed” the cap and that a trial court “shall reduce” any award in excess of the cap.