Balto. Co. juries buck trend of big awards

Average for malpractice, personal injury payouts lower than state figure

`You don't see runaway verdicts'

March 22, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Juries and their "runaway" verdicts have been taking a lot of heat lately.

Doctors -- including hundreds who marched in Annapolis in January -- have blamed them for the increased cost of medical malpractice insurance. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed new limits that would reduce the amount of money juries can award for pain and suffering.

And in the national tort reform debate, which puts such weighty matters as the country's medical systems and victims' rights at stake, President Bush has held juries and their verdicts responsible for a "broken" legal process, and has likened some litigation to a "giant lottery."

But a look at the justice system in Baltimore County does not reveal a pattern of the irresponsible juries awarding outrageous verdict sums.

In Baltimore County, it is the defense -- not the plaintiffs' lawyers who ask for damages -- that regularly brings cases to juries, attorneys and judges say. And although the court system does not keep statistics, county judges say juries are reluctant to hand out large cash awards.

"In the last 10 years, I have only asked for a jury one time," said Brice G. Dowell, a Towson attorney who handles malpractice and other tort cases. "And that one time was in a fraud case against a car dealer. I can tell you that in no malpractice case that I have filed have I asked for a jury. Not one."

Last year, Lori Porter filed a $25,000 lawsuit in Baltimore County's District Court, where judges, not juries, preside over small claims cases.

According to the suit, the 25-year-old graphic designer from Overlea was driving on the Harbor Tunnel Thruway when the motorist behind her drove into her car.

Her new Honda Accord was totaled, she recalled, and the pain was debilitating. She also had medical bills that insurance didn't fully cover.

"Your job is affected, your relationships are affected," she said recently. "Just dealing with the pain -- it affects every part of your life."

In October, the insurance company demanded a jury trial.

Her lawyer, Lee R. Jacobson, said he was not surprised. The tactic moved the case to Circuit Court, where defense attorneys can interview more witnesses and put experts on the stand -- and where they get a jury trial.

There are few comprehensive statistics about jury awards, in Maryland or nationwide. The independent Verdict Research Group, which tracks jury awards in some states, estimates that on average, Maryland juries award $20,000 in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. In Baltimore County the average is $15,590.

"Juries in Baltimore County are generally conservative," said attorney R. Roger Dreschsler, who typically represents defendants. "You've got a blue-collar group, working people, property owners, small businesspeople."

County judges say an award of more than $1 million is highly unusual.

"You don't see runaway verdicts, you really don't," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski.

Baltimore County is not alone, many legal experts said. Anne Arundel and Harford counties are also considered to have conservative juries, lawyers said, as are many rural and suburban communities across the country.

"In affluent suburbs, jury awards are generally fairly low," said Oscar Gray, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. "You're dealing with people who are likely to be spending a lot of money on their own insurance, and are likely very responsive to insurance company propaganda programs about jury awards increasing their premiums."

Lawyers say that juries elsewhere in Maryland are more inclined to award larger damages. According to the Verdict Research Group, the average jury verdict in Baltimore City is $17,882, and in Prince George's County it is $24,982.

Former Judge John F. Fader II, who retired from the Baltimore County Circuit bench in November, estimated that in about 95 percent of the automobile accident and personal injuries cases that came from the county District Court, the jury ruled in favor of the defense.

When the jury did side with the plaintiff, the verdict was usually minimal, Fader said.

"In the automobile cases, I thought a number of people should have recovered [damages] who didn't," he said.

Jacobson said that because defense attorneys regularly move cases to Circuit Court, he sometimes tries to keep small claims cases to less than $10,000, which by law keeps them in District Court and away from juries.

Medical malpractice cases are different than small claims cases such as Porter's.

Those lawsuits, which have most inflamed doctors' groups, are typically filed in Circuit Court, and usually ask for large damages.

But in Baltimore County they are hardly bonanzas for plaintiffs, those involved with the court system said.

Juries tend to comb over evidence to determine liability, judges said. Often they rule for the defense.

"Based on my experience, I think that Baltimore County defendants are able to get defense verdicts in cases they are entitled to," said Catherine Steiner, a Towson defense attorney.

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