This morning I'm headed to Annapolis with several of my Maryland Association for Justice colleagues to urge our State Senators to vote in favor of Senate Bills 118 and Senate Bill 119 which will increase from $10,000.00 to $20,000.00 the maximum amount in controversy in which a party may not demand a jury trial. Information about the bill can be found at http://mlis.state.md.us/2010rs/billfile/SB0118.htm. This is important legislation for Maryland car accident victims because it will allow more of our clients to get their day in court in a timely manner. Under the current law, what typically happens if we file suit in District Court for $25,000.000 in a typical car accident personal injury case where there are say $5,000.00 in medical bills, is that the liability insurance company will demand a jury trial (yes--even in these smaller cases). This means that the case will get transferred from District Court to Circuit Court and instead of the case being heard within 2-4 months in District Court it can take up to 2 years to get a jury trial in Circuit Court. The increase in costs due to the delay, depositions and the need for live expert testimony, and the delay in receiving a trial date, can force a car accident victim to accept an unfair settlement offer from the insurance company. Also, quite frankly, in smaller cases it is not a wise use of judicial resources to have a full blown Circuit Court trial with discovery, depositions, etc. By contrast, in Maryland District Court the cases are heard by a judge (not a jury) and the discovery is limited to just 15 interrogatories (questions that are to be answered under oath).
In my opinion, insurance companies demand a jury trial in these smaller cases in order to force injured victims to accept lowball settlement offers and/or to allow the insurance company to hold onto money that rightfully belongs to injured victims for a longer period of time (and earn interest on the money). Especially in these tough economic times, these insurance companies know that many accident victims will simply accept an extremely low settlement offer rather than go through the expense and delay of a full blown jury trial in Circuit Court. Remember, these victims have suffered an injury and often lost time from work, and are already in a hole economically. These insurance company tactics are unfair, and frankly, are a complete waste of judicial resources and a waste of the time of Maryland Citizens who are forced to sit through 2-3 day jury trials for what could easily be a one or two hour District Court case in front of a judge.
As President of the Maryland Association for Justice we have pushed hard for this legislation that will allow more of our clients to get access to justice sooner. Because the legislation will require a change in the Maryland Declaration of Rights (The Maryland Constitution), after the legislation passes it will still have to be approved by the Maryland voters and will appear on the ballot in November 2010.
The jury trial right is in Articles 5 and 23 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. Article 5 preserves the right of the inhabitants of Maryland to a jury trial as it existed in the English Common Law on July 4, 1776. Article 23 guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil proceedings where the amount in controversy exceeds $10,000. A party may not demand a jury trial if the amount in controversy does not exceed $10,000, exclusive of any attorney's fees if attorney's fees are recoverable by law or contract. The above referenced legislation, once approved by Maryland voters in November, will increase this $10,000.00 limit to $20,000.00.
By way of further background, The District Court of Maryland has exclusive jurisdiction for civil cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed $5,000, exclusive of prejudgment or postjudgment interest, costs, and attorney's fees if attorney's fees are recoverable by law or contract.
The District Court has concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit courts in a civil case in which the amount in controversy exceeds $5,000, but does not exceed $30,000, exclusive of prejudgment or postjudgment interest, costs, and attorney's fees if attorney's fees are recoverable by law or contract, and the plaintiff may choose to file the case in the District Court or a circuit court. However, if the plaintiff files the case in the District Court and the amount in controversy exceeds $10,000, a defendant may demand a jury trial and the case must be transferred to the circuit court. Because liability insurance companies such as State Farm, MAIF (aka Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund), Allstate and Erie basically control the defense of such cases, they will quite often demand a jury trial whenever an injured car accident person sues for more than $10,000.00
If the amount in controversy (the amount sued for) exceeds $30,000, exclusive of prejudgment or postjudgment interest, costs, and attorney's fees if attorney's fees are recoverable by law or contract, then the District Court does not have jurisdiction and the injured party would have to file that case originally in Circuit Court.
Under the English Common Law, parties to civil cases at law were entitled to a trial by jury, regardless of the amount in controversy. Article X, Section 4 of the Maryland Constitution as drafted at the 1850 Convention stated, "The trial by jury of all issues of fact in civil proceedings, in the several courts of law in this State, where the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of five dollars, shall be inviolably preserved." This was the first instance in which an amount in controversy was stipulated in reference to the entitlement to a trial by jury in civil cases at law. In 1970, the amount was changed to $500. In 1977, the provision was moved to its current location in Article 23 of the Declaration of Rights. The amount in controversy was changed to $5,000 in 1992, and then to $10,000 in 1998.
In Davis v. Slater, 383 Md. 599 (2004), the Court of Appeals found that these prior constitutional amendments changing the amount in controversy provision contained in Article 23 of the Declaration of Rights did not abrogate Article 5(a) of the Declaration of Rights and the applicable amount in controversy for determining the right to a jury trial in SB 118 / Page 3
a civil case was $5. In response to that decision, Chapter 422 of 2006, a constitutional amendment, was passed by the General Assembly and ratified by the voters to provide that the General Assembly may limit the right to trial by jury to a civil case in which the amount in controversy exceeds $10,000. Chapter 575 of 2006 was also enacted, contingent on ratification of Chapter 422, to provide that a party in a civil action may not demand a jury trial if the amount in controversy does not exceed $10,000, exclusive of any applicable attorney's fees.