A Maryland trial judge has ruled that the state’s cap on noneconomic damages cannot be imposed on jury awards.
As a result, the widow and daughters of a man who died of melanoma will keep most of a $5.8 million verdict, including almost $3 million in compensation for their bereavement and the patient’s pain and suffering. Circuit Judge John Debelius III denied a defense motion to cut that part of the award to $812,500 to conform to the damages cap.
Maryland has limited noneconomic damages since 1986. The law was overhauled in 2005 in response to soaring medical malpractice premiums. It allows the cap to rise automatically every few years. Currently, it stands at $665,000 for cases involving just one plaintiff and about $830,000 for those with multiple claimants.
As originally drafted, the new statute would have applied to all malpractice cases, Debelius explained. Changes made during the legislative process, however, resulted in a final version that referred only to cases that had been previously arbitrated, not to those tried by jury. While acknowledging that the legislature may not have meant to remove the cap for most plaintiffs, the judge ruled he could not rectify the lawmakers’ mistake.
“If the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, the court need not look beyond the statute’s provisions,” Debelius wrote in a 20-page decision. “The language [here] is clear and unambiguous.
“This court is without authority to amend the statute to reinstate language deleted from a draft version or to insert new words to the same effect, whether consistent with the perceived legislative intent or otherwise.”