Ballot question proposes restricting the right for jury to hear civil trial Caseload would ease, say measure's supporters

October 31, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Maryland voters will decide at the polls Tuesday whether to amend the state constitution to limit the right to a jury trial in civil lawsuits. Only disputes involving more than $10,000 would be tried before a jury if the measure passes.

A second ballot amendment, described as a "housekeeping measure," authorizes the assignment of retired circuit court judges in Montgomery and Harford counties to perform the functions of Orphans' Court judges.

Maryland's Constitution gives citizens the right to a jury trial in Circuit Court in any civil case that involves a claim of more than $5,000. Amounts below that threshold go to District Court for a bench trial, in which a judge alone decides the case.

Supporters such as the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association and Maryland Bankers Association say doubling the threshold to $10,000 would reduce Circuit Court case backlogs and would help get cases resolved more quickly and efficiently.

"The district courts are simply a more efficient arena for handling small matters," said Daniel M. Clements, chairman of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association's political action committee.

He said the amendment benefits litigants on both sides of smaller cases because it allows those cases "to be heard more quickly, and at much lower expense."

But insurance industry opponents say the more relaxed rules of evidence in District Court would give an advantage to plaintiffs, would lead to higher settlements and ultimately would cost Maryland consumers through higher insurance rates.

Jeffery W. Williams, an attorney for Allstate Insurance Co., said a defendant in a civil case would be at a disadvantage if he or she did not have the ability to thoroughly scrutinize and challenge evidence a plaintiff would be allowed to present.

"It's a fact that the evidence cannot be scrutinized as well in District Court," Williams said. "The result is that verdicts are going to tend to be higher in District Court because of this lack of scrutiny."

Some in the insurance business also say they prefer that juries decide their cases.

"We feel we get a better shot with a jury," said Leo Doyle, an Annapolis lobbyist for the National Association of Independent Insurers.

D. Robert Enten, a lobbyist for the Maryland Bankers Association, said that group favors the constitutional amendment because it would allow smaller claims to be handled more efficiently.

"If you are a credit card company, you're filing a large number of cases. It's quicker and much less expensive if those cases are going to be heard in District Court, without a jury," he said.

Maryland voters addressed the issue of raising the threshold for jury trials in civil courts in 1992, when it was raised from $500 to $5,000.

The second ballot amendment involves Montgomery and Harford counties which, unlike other Maryland counties, do not have elected Orphans' Court judges who are responsible for handling routine probate matters. Instead, the probate of wills and similar matters are handled by circuit court judges.

Harford County Circuit Judge William O. Carr said the amendment is a "housekeeping measure" to make clear that retired judges can handle those matters, which is sometimes necessary when there are vacancies on the circuit bench.

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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