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Insurers played ‘hardball’ on claims during pandemic, personal injury lawyers say

A. Dwight Pettit, who has practiced civil rights, criminal, and personal injury law since 1973, said insurance companies used the fact courts weren’t setting trial dates during the pandemic to “play hardball” with claimants. The Daily Record/File photo)

Long waits for trial dates in Maryland circuit and district courts endure as the most persistent challenge facing personal injury cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In some cases, Maryland personal injury attorneys say, those delays force have distressed clients to accept low-ball offers from insurance companies.

More than two years after the disease arrived in Maryland, personal injury attorneys say they still have trouble setting trial dates, particularly in larger metro jurisdictions. While the timetable for scheduling court dates has normalized in the last six months, attorneys said, insurance companies use the backlog to their advantage.

Long waits caused many clients, already desperate for funds to cover medical bills, to accept low-ball settlements instead of pursuing a trial where they’re likely to have a more favorable outcome.

A.Dwight Pettit, who has practiced civil rights, criminal, and personal injury law since 1973, said insurance companies used the fact courts weren’t setting trial dates to “play hardball.” He said claims adjustors simply stopped returning phone calls in the case of one of the area’s top insurance firms.

“The hammer we used to use against the insurance company is, ‘Fine, we will file suit,’” Pettit said. “That threat’s no longer available.”

Kurt Nachtman, of Eldridge, Nachtman, and Crandell, said at the start of the pandemic, insurance companies aggressively settled cases. He discharged about 30% of his open personal injury cases in the first months of the pandemic.

That changed drastically after the courts were closed for a few months, and insurance companies realized they could wait out plaintiffs, he said.

“There is the fact that trial dates are very far out. It puts a lot of pressure on plaintiffs,” Nachtman said.

Ari Laric, managing partner at Berman|Sobin|Gross, was blunter in his assessment of the tactics insurance companies used once COVID-19 diminished the potential for taking a claim to trial.

“Our clients were economically blackmailed,” Laric said.

There are signs that the backlog is starting to clear out. One resource courts are using to unclog the accumulation of personal injury cases in pre-trial conferences.

Circuit court judges are pushing for settlements in these conferences, attorneys said, in a bid to reduce trial volumes. That’s been especially true in cases where the difference between the defendant’s offer and what plaintiffs seek is relatively small.

While pre-trial conferences help clear the pileup of cases at the circuit court level, it’s not an option everywhere. In the district courts, which hear less severe injury cases, there’s no pre-trial conference and the backlog remains formidable, attorneys say.

While the logjam of cases continues to provide challenges, lawyers said, some obstacles they expected from the pandemic haven’t materialized.

Attorneys anticipated fielding many calls from potential clients inquiring about potential negligent exposure cases in medical settings. However, personal injury cases, especially those involving medical professionals, are challenging due to what the Maryland Association of Justice’s Trial Reporter newsletter called “robust statutory liability protection” for health care providers.

Initially, some personal injury attorneys feared injured clients might decline medical treatment or abandon a prescribed course of medicine out of fear of catching COVID-19.  Those fears, attorneys said, have proved to be unfounded.

“I haven’t had that experience at all,” Nachtman said.

It’s expected much of the legal fallout from the pandemic will play out in workers’ compensation actions. Maryland’s workers’ compensation laws provide a wider berth for employees to seek damages if exposed to the virus on the job.

Laric, whose firm handles many workers’ compensation cases, couldn’t quantify the increase in COVID 19-related cases his firm is filing with Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Commission.

However, he said, his office is filing cases involving a substantial number of employees deemed “essential workers” exposed to COVID-19 at work and who now struggle with “long COVID” or other persistent complications from the disease.

At least in those cases, Laric said, workers’ compensation attorneys aren’t facing the same backlog of cases like personal injury attorneys.

Maryland’s Workers Compensation Commission quickly adopted a video conference system to hear cases, he said, and figured out how to safely hear cases in person once that option was available.

“A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic where the world shut down but not the Workers’ Compensation Commission,” Laric said.

As a result, his firm’s attorneys were able to help clients, whom he describes as “some of the most at-risk people in Maryland.”

“It could’ve been really, really catastrophic,” he said.