As most personal injury lawyers know, in Maryland the jurisdictional maximum is $30,000 in District Court, but if you request more than $10,000 in your complaint, the defendant can “bump the case up” to Circuit Court for a jury trial. Maryland personal injury lawyers were hoping to see an increase in the jurisdictional minimum to $20,000 before defendants can bump up the case.
A bill introduced in the Maryland legislature this session would have done exactly that by increasing to $20,000 the minimum amount in controversy in which the District Court has exclusive jurisdiction. This is would be a real win to relatively small claims plaintiffs seeking between $10,000 and $20,000, who could be assured of a faster and more expedient trial as opposed to the risk of additional time and expenses that would be incurred in a Circuit Court trial.
It makes sense to allow plaintiffs to keep smaller claims in District Court because the cost-benefit of smaller cases should not require Herculean efforts for a relatively small award. Of course, insurance companies opposed this bill for that very reason: they want to require injury victims who do not accept what they offer to have to wait longer and subject them to more inconvenience (deposition, more lengthy interrogatories, etc.). To make this argument, the insurance companies who are contemptuous of our jury system were required to bask in the rich irony of insurance companies defending the right to a jury trial. But insurance companies embrace painfully contradictory positions like Trevor Immelman embraced that Masters’ green jacket yesterday: with joy and without hesitation.
Anyway, Maryland Senate Bill 404 was amended to reduce the District Court exclusive jurisdiction to $15,000, but it died on the floor of the Maryland Senate quietly and with no fanfare by one lousy vote.
Another great bill that was introduced was Maryland House Bill 404, which would have increased the minimum small claims from $5,000 to $10,000. Arguably, this bill would have hurt personal injury lawyers because it would allow people to bring their own small personal injury claims without a lawyer. Of course, this is why it would also be a good bill. Injury victims who did not accept the insurance company’s offer, but also could not or did not want to hire a lawyer, could bring a claim with no technical requirements, most notably the need to file a 10-104, which most victims do not know how to do. Again embracing paradox, this time of insurance companies wanting injury victims to hire a personal injury lawyer, the insurance company lobbyist could defeat the bill. Maryland House Bill 404 died in the House Judiciary Committee.
A couple of good things came out of this session for personal injury lawyers and their victims. First, Maryland House Bill 16 passed which changed the Draconian 180-day statute of limitations in Local Government Tort Claims Act claims to a slightly less Draconian 1-year statute of limitations. Second, Maryland Senate Bill 736 now allows for service of process on out-of-state defendants by serving the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration. Finally, as I wrote about in October, there was a new law creating additional hurdles for Maryland lawyers in getting police reports that were repealed in pertinent part, getting us back to the “you request a police report and you get it without too many hassles” days.
Finally, in a note completely unrelated to personal injury cases, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee rejected HB378, which would have increased the penalties for abuse or neglect of animals and aggravated cruelty to animals. Under this proposed bill, a person convicted of abuse or neglect of animals or aggravated cruelty to animals would have to receive psychological counseling. The bill would also prohibit the court from suspending any part of a 1-year mandatory minimum sentence for aggravated cruelty to animals. If made law, this bill would have been a powerful message to those willing to impose needless cruelty on animals. Unfortunately, animal victims do not have many lobbyists fighting on their behalf.