This March, the Florida Supreme Court issued an important decision holding that Florida’s non-economic damages cap is unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of Florida’s constitution. And although the Florida decision is the most recent, courts in Illinois, New Hampshire, Missouri, Georgia, and several other states have similarly struck down caps on non-economic damages.
Although the Florida decision does not directly affect Maryland law, the National Law Review has recently noted that the Florida decision could influence other states, such as Maryland, that have non-economic damages caps.
What is a Cap on Non-Economic Damages?
Non-economic damages are damages that are not direct loss. These damages can include damages for:
- pain and suffering;
- loss of consortium;
- loss of companionship, support, or protection;
- emotional distress or mental anguish; and
- loss of lifestyle due to physical impairment.
An experienced Maryland personal injury attorney will be able to argue that a plaintiff deserves non-economic damages when the facts support such an argument. However, Maryland law does impose a cap on non-economic damages. A cap on noneconomic damages limits the amount of money that an injured person who brings a lawsuit can recover for these types of damages. As of October 2013, the cap in Maryland is $785,000 for personal injury claims, $1,177,500 for wrongful death claims when there are two or more beneficiaries, and $1,962,500 for combined wrongful death and survival actions. These caps are raised slightly each year on October 1.
Why Was Florida’s Cap Struck Down?
In Estate of Michelle McCall v. United States of America, the Florida Supreme Court struck down Florida’s cap because it violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution.
Michelle McCall died in February 2006 due to complications giving birth. After a trial, the McCalls were awarded $2 million in noneconomic damages; however, the award was reduced to $1 million, which was Florida’s cap for noneconomic damages in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Ultimately, the Florida Supreme Court held that the limit on non-economic damages violated the equal protection clause of the Florida Constitution because it treated a single plaintiff different than a case where there are multiple plaintiffs (for example, several surviving family members). Under Florida’s cap, several plaintiffs would have had to split the non-economic damages, resulting in fewer damages per plaintiff. A single plaintiff, however, would have received far more. The Florida Court held that this discrepancy was a failure to grant Florida citizens equal protection of the law.
What Does This Mean for Maryland?
A decision by a Florida Court based on Florida law does not directly affect the law in Maryland. However, the Florida decision is part of a growing trend where 1) state courts have invalidated non-economic damage caps or 2) legislatures have re-written or revised their tort reform statutes. This trend could influence either the Maryland courts or legislature to consider changing the non-economic damages cap.
The last time the Maryland cap faced a substantial challenge was in a 2010 case, DRD Pool Service v. Freed, when the Maryland Court of Appeals held that the statutory cap was constitutional and that the principle of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”) was controlling because the challenge in Freed was similar to other challenges the Court had decided in the past.
The challenge in Freed, like the recent successful Florida challenge, was based in part on equal protection grounds. Like the United States Constitution, many state constitutions have an equal protection clause. However, Maryland does not have an express equal protection clause. Instead, Article 24 of the Declaration of Rights has been held to include an implied equal protection component. This important difference between the Maryland Constitution and the Florida Constitution, which has an express equal protection clause, may mean that Maryland courts will continue to uphold the non-economic damages cap even if other states revise or eliminate theirs.
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