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Zirkin says he has no interest in splitting difference in damages cap

ANNAPOLIS – The chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee said Friday he has no intention of settling for the mathematical middle ground between Senate- and House-passed legislation to raise the liability cap for state, county and local governments for negligent acts that injure people.

The Senate’s higher limit of $500,000 per harmed individual provides more appropriate  compensation than the House’s $300,000 limit, said Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, although he said even the Senate limit is still woefully inadequate.

“I am not going in there and saying ‘let’s split the difference’” at $400,000, Zirkin added. “That would be an injustice.”

The current cap is $200,000 under both the Maryland Tort Claims Act and the Local Government Tort Claims Act.

The $300,000 limit proposed by the House would not even cover the medical expenses of many individuals harmed through the negligence of a government agent such as a police officer, Zirkin said. Even the Senate’s $500,000 figure is too small, Zirkin said in rejecting the suggestion that $400,000 would be a logical middle ground.

Splitting the difference, if that is the lawmakers’ solution, would also result in an $800,000 cap in any single lawsuit brought against a county or local government, regardless of the number of plaintiffs. The Senate has called for a $1 million cap, while the House has approved $600,000.

The Local Government Tort Claims Act now places the cap at $500,000. The Maryland Tort Claims Act imposes no limit on the state’s liability for a claim brought by multiple claimants.

Zirkin’s comments followed the Senate’s passage by greater than 2-to-1 margins Friday of legislation to raise the caps on damages.

Sen. Robert Cassilly, an opponent of the increased caps, said the greater financial exposure could discourage states, counties and localities from providing parks and other open spaces where people could get hurt.

“We don’t want them [governments] being bigger tort targets for plaintiffs lawyers,” said Cassilly, R-Harford.

Negotiations between senators and delegates will likely occur this weekend with final votes occurring in the Senate and House before 12 a.m. Tuesday, when the 2015 General Assembly ends by operation of law.

The new caps would apply to claims that arise on or after Oct. 1, 2015.