The Maryland Senate gave its preliminary approval Friday to a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the amount in controversy that entitles litigants to a jury trial from more than $15,000 to more than $30,000.
The Senate could vote as early as next week to approve the proposal that — if ratified — would be Maryland’s first increase to the jury trial threshold since 2010, when Marylanders approved a boost from more than $10,000 to more than $15,000.
The proposed amendment, Senate Bill 669, is also pending in the House of Delegates. House Bill 902, sponsored by Del. J. Sandy Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel, awaits a vote by the House Judiciary Committee before it would be debated on the floor.
Maryland’s $15,000 jury trial threshold is the highest in the United States.
Louisiana did have the highest at $50,000 but lowered it to $10,000 in the last year.
Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, the proposed amendment’s chief Senate sponsor, said the boost would “increase access to justice” by relieving circuit courts of holding jury trials for relatively small claims, thus enabling those cases to be more efficiently and just as fairly resolved by a judge.
“When folks have to go to circuit court, it requires them to lay out a tremendous amount of expenses,” Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, told his colleagues before their voice vote Friday.
“It means they have to hire an expert; it means they have to have depositions,” said Waldstreicher, vice chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “These things are very expensive and prevent the easy access to justice. We want victims to get the compensation they deserve and do so in a way that is expeditious.”
But Sen. Robert Cassilly said the proposed increase in the jury trial threshold would be unfair to noncorporate defendants for whom a judgment over $15,000 could be financially devastating.
These defendants of “modest means” would rather have “a jury of their peers” determine their liability – as occurs under the current threshold — rather than have their financial fate decided by a single judge, said Cassilly, R-Harford and a member of the Senate committee.
“That (increase from $15,000 to $30,000) may be chump change to you, but to a lot of people in society 15 grand is a lot of money,” Cassilly said. “They’d like to be able to have their peers say they owe it rather than just a judge.”
The proposed increase has also divided attorneys for plaintiffs and civil defendants.
Members of the plaintiffs’ bar — many of whom are paid only if their clients win — have praised the proposal, saying it would reduce the time, expense and unpredictability of impaneling a jury and awaiting its verdict in the many cases that involve litigation of between $15,000 and $30,000. The defense bar has opposed an increase, saying it would limit clients’ right to a jury trial.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Bruce M. Plaxen told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last month that “speedy” justice before a judge benefits injured clients seeking compensation for past, present and future medical expenses. A jury trial can take up to two years with depositions and expert witnesses, while a judge trial can be resolved in four to five months, said Plaxen, of Plaxen Adler Muncy P.A. in Columbia.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” he added.
Attorney Amy M. Orsi told the Senate committee that while jury trials have been postponed until April 26 due to COVID-19, district court judges have been able to press ahead with deciding claims of $15,000 and less remotely.
Such efficient resolutions of claims should be available when the compensation sought is at most $30,000 rather than forcing litigants to contend with the delays in jury trials exacerbated by the pandemic, she said.
“It is going to take years for the courts to get out of this backlog,” added Orsi, of the Law Offices of Markey & Orsi in Towson and president of the Maryland Association for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs’ lawyers.
But defense attorneys told the Senate committee that jury trials ensure justice and protect the rights of their clients.
“Our policyholders expect us to defend their interest to the best of our abilities,” said Nancy Egan, of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association. “I don’t think we’re obstacles to justice.”
Andrew Kirkner, of the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, said jury trials – which entail on-the-record depositions as well as sworn interrogatories – protect the rights of civil defendants.
“All policyholders have an interest in accurate results, in the accurate determination of justice,” Kirkner told the Senate committee. “A deposition versus a written interrogatory provides a forum in which that accurate look at justice can occur.”
To be ratified, the proposed constitutional amendment must be passed by three-fifths of the Senate and the House and then approved by a majority of Maryland voters in 2022.