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Update: Maryland House Judiciary Committee Conducts Hearing on Non-economic Damages Bills

April 1, 2014 By Abby V. Uzupis

On March 5, 2014, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on House Bills 930 and 1009 to hear testimony for and against a change in non-economic damages caps.  Many different groups – ranging from insurance companies, hospitals, plaintiff and defense lawyers, and accident victims – attended the hearing to persuade the delegates to either increase or decrease the caps for non-economic damages.

House Bill 930

As previously mentioned in our March 3 blog post, HB 930 seeks to decrease the cap on non-economic damages for medical malpractice cases.  More specifically, proponents of the legislation want to reduce the amount of damages that a plaintiff could recover for pain and suffering, emotional distress, loss of enjoyment and/or companionship, and other intangible injuries.  The bill would reduce the current cap on these types of damages from $740,000 to $500,000.

Hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies testifying in favor of the bill noted that awarding damages for things like pain and suffering is very difficult and hard to monetize, which often leads juries to make inconsistent and higher than necessary awards.  Inconsistent and high awards, these groups assert, has increased insurance premiums for doctors, caused hospitals to cut into their budgets for patient care, increased plaintiff settlement demands, and the filing of frivolous claims.  The proponents also asked the Committee to look at the “big picture,” and suggested that higher non-economic damages would affect Maryland’s ability to fulfill its agreement with the federal government to lower healthcare costs.

Despite the testimony in favor of HB 930, the Committee issued an unfavorable report, which means the Judiciary Committee is recommending that the General Assembly not pass HB 930. If voted down, the current cap on non-economic damages will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

House Bill 1009

HB 1009 was introduced to provide an exception to the current caps on non-economic damages for catastrophic injuries.  At the hearing plaintiffs attorneys, victims of catastrophic injuries and their families, and a former judge and professor advocated for the exception.  They stated that the cap did not adequately account for the pain and suffering that is caused by catastrophic injuries, and that those victims deserved damages commensurate with the harm they have suffered.  Advocates also took on the financial impact of the exception and testified that the exception would not lead to runaway verdicts as the exception would apply to only a very limited set of injuries and would only account for a small percentage of cases before Maryland juries.  Finally, the retired judge reminded the Committee that there are various procedural backstops that a judge could invoke to reduce a jury verdict that is too high.

The same groups in favor of HB 930 (to reduce the cap) came out in opposition of HB 1009 (to allow exceptions to the cap).  In addition to the arguments proffered for HB 930, major Maryland hospitals, insurance companies, and the defense bar noted that plaintiffs would now claim that almost every injury was catastrophic under the exception, leading to even higher jury awards.  Further, the possibility of higher damages would increase uncertainty in the medical community and possibly push primary care physicians out of the market.

The Committee has yet to issue a recommendation as to whether HB 1009 should be passed.  Stay tuned for more updates!