Maryland high court upholds medical liability cap

Justices affirmed that the noneconomic damage cap applies to all cases, not just those in arbitration.

By — Posted Jan. 28, 2010

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An attempt to undo Maryland's liability cap failed before the state's highest court in a ruling physicians say preserved not only the law but also access to care.

A trial court in April 2009 found that the state's award limit applied only to cases that go to arbitration. As a result, the court refused to reduce a $5.8 million jury verdict for Barbara Semsker to the $812,500 cap for wrongful death cases. Awards in other medical liability cases are capped at $650,000.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals, in a unanimous Jan. 12 ruling, called the lower court's interpretation "a considerable leap in reasoning." Noting that arbitration is voluntary, justices said the trial court's reasoning essentially would render the cap ineffective (link).

When the General Assembly revised the cap in a 2004 special legislative session, it intended for the cap to apply to all medical liability cases, including those that are arbitrated, the court said.

The whole point of that special session was to address a spike in medical liability insurance premiums that was driving many physicians out of practice, so the idea that lawmakers would limit the cap made little sense, said Gene M. Ransom III, CEO of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society. The organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case with support from the Litigation Center of the American Medical Association and State Medical Societies.

Lawmakers lowered the cap in 2004, and since then, physicians have seen their liability costs stabilize and even inch downward in some areas, Ransom said. "This really took a bad situation and stopped it from getting worse. So this is a clear victory for physicians and patients."

Plaintiff lawyers said the trial court got it right.

The high court ruling maintains an unfair law that puts an arbitrary price tag on cases brought by seriously injured patients, said Wayne M. Willoughby, immediate past president of the Maryland Assn. for Justice, which also filed a brief in the case, Lockshin v. Semsker.

Meanwhile, physicians are wary of another case headed to the high court. That lawsuit questions the constitutionality of an award limit in general liability cases, but could have ripple effects on the medical liability cap. MedChi plans to file a brief in the case, Freed v. DRD Pool Service. Oral arguments are expected to begin in March.

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