Maximum value of marriage is $500,000, court says

June 27, 1995|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

What is the affection and comfort of a marriage worth?

No more than $500,000, according to Maryland's highest court.

The Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the amount awarded for loss of consortium, defined as the "society, affection, assistance, and conjugal fellowship" of a marriage, must be included with all other noneconomic awards and that together they cannot exceed $500,000.

A 1986 state law limited awards for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of consortium and other noneconomic claims to $350,000. That cap was increased to $500,000 in 1994. The court held yesterday that the awards for all those damages together must stay under the limit.

"The plain meaning of this provision is that damages for loss of consortium should be governed by the same . . . limit as the other items," Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy wrote for the unanimous court.

Loss of consortium claims are standard fare in most civil suits where the injuries deprive the plaintiff of the company or comfort of his or her spouse.

"It's sort of a typical claim in most accidents or in cases with injuries where you're unavailable to your spouse for a significant amount of time," explained Diane Hoffman, a professor of tort law at the University of Maryland law school.

The $350,000 cap was in effect July 5, 1989, when a car driven by Willie James Oaks of the 700 block of Chapelview Drive, Odenton, slid on a rain-slicked portion of Route 176 near Hanover, crossed the center line and struck a van in which Anna M. Connors was a passenger.

The accident injured Mrs. Connors' right arm, right hand and caused neurological problems that left her unable to care for her ailing husband, Herbert Connors, who had been diagnosed with emphysema and relied on her for care.

The Connors, of the 7200 block of Wright Road, Hanover, sued in Anne Arundel Circuit Court in 1990 and two years later a jury awarded them $84,200 in economic damages, $350,000 in general noneconomic damages and another $130,000 for a separate of loss of consortium claim.

Judge H. Chester Goudy Jr. vacated the loss of consortium claim, saying that the amount for all noneconomic damages could not exceed the state-mandated $350,000 cap.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed, but the Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Goudy's decision.

"There is no indication in the literal language of Section 11-108 that the Legislature intended to allow a separate cap for a consortium claim," Judge Murphy wrote.

Phillips P. O'Shaughnessy, the Baltimore lawyer who handled Mrs. Connor's appeal, said yesterday's ruling clarifies how the cap enacted by the General Assembly nine years ago, applies to future loss of consortium claims. "Up until this, the rule from the Court of Special Appeals was that the couple was entitled to one cap [of $500,000] and there was a separate cap for the injured individual," he said.

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