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Md. Senate approves raising jury trial threshold

"We want victims to get the compensation they deserve and do so in a way that is expeditious,” says Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, D-Montgomery, was the chief Senate sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would raise the amount in controversy that entitles a jury trial from $15,000 to $30,000. The Senate approved the amendment Tuesday by a 43-4 vote. The measure is pending in the House Judiciary Committee. (The Daily Record file photo)

The Maryland Senate on Tuesday approved 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.

With the Senate’s 43-4 vote, attention shifts to the House of Delegates, where the proposal is pending before the House Judiciary Committee. If ratified, the amendment 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.

Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, the proposed amendment’s chief Senate sponsor, said last week that 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.

“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 last week that 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.”

Cassilly was joined in his opposition to the bill by Sens. Jason C. Gallion, R-Harford and Cecil; Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County; and Chris West, R-Baltimore County.

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.

The proposed amendment is Senate Bill 669 and House Bill 902. Del. J. Sandy Bartlett, D-Anne Arundel, is chief sponsor of H.B. 902.

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.

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