Lawmakers try again to raise small claims limit

January 25, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Small-business owners and consumer advocates are trying to revive a bill vetoed last year by Gov. Parris N. Glendening that makes it easier for people to go to small claims court.

A measure before the General Assembly, supported by the two groups who frequently disagree, would increase the amount a person could sue for in small claims court to $5,000.

Identical legislation was unanimously approved last year, but the governor vetoed it at the urging of trial lawyers.

For groups supporting the bill, the issue is simple: You do not need to hire a lawyer for many small claims cases.

The state limits small claims cases, which are heard in District Court, to disputes of $2,500 or less. Disputes involving more than that amount are heard in Circuit Court, where many defendants and plaintiffs feel they need a lawyer to navigate the complicated and often clogged system.

"This is bad business for lawyers, but good for business, consumers and the courts," said Daniel J. Mellin, a lawyer who testified in support of the bill at a House Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday.

Maryland's $2,500 limit is lower than the small claims limit in 39 states.

"We as small businesses are too smart to hire a lawyer and spend $4,000 to collect $3,000," said James Davis, owner of a Gaithersburg lumber company.

As was the case last year, the bill, introduced by Del. Robert C. Baldwin, an Anne Arundel County Republican, is being opposed by the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

Bruce Plaxen of the association said it opposes the bill because plaintiffs lose the right to discovery and a jury trial in District Court.

"We simply do not want to give up the plaintiffs' right to get some minimal discovery, like finding out who the witnesses are going to be," Plaxen said.

Glendening expressed the same concerns when he vetoed the measure last year.

Supporters of the bill said the governor caved to pressure from the trial lawyers, who have contributed generously to his campaigns.

In 1998, the trial lawyers association donated $12,000 - the maximum it could give legally - to Glendening's campaign. The organization spent $100,000 on radio ads attacking the governor's opponent in that race.

"Whatever the merits of [last year's bill], the $100,000 spent by the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association for the Governor Glendening's re-election makes the governor's veto of this bill look like a quid pro quo," said James Browning, executive director of the Maryland office of Common Cause, a nonprofit government watchdog.

Glendening spokesman Mike Morrill said the governor supported several other bills last year that were opposed by the trial lawyers association.

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