Edmonds v. Murphy

Decision Date01 September 1989
Docket NumberNo. 1480,1480
Citation83 Md.App. 133,573 A.2d 853
Parties, 59 USLW 2088 Richard Andre EDMONDS, et al. v. Sarah MURPHY, et vir. ,
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Robert P. O'Brien (Marc K. Sloane and Niles, Barton & Wilmer, on the brief), Baltimore, for appellants.

Philip O. Foard (George W. White, Jr., Jay D. Miller and White, Mindel, Clarke, & Foard, on the brief), Towson, for appellees.

J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen., Kathryn M. Rowe and Robert A. Zarnoch, Asst. Attys. Gen., Annapolis, for amicus curiae, State of Md.

David M. Funk, Bryan D. Bolton, Valerie A. Irvine and Shapiro and Olander, Baltimore, and Stephen P. Carney, Hunt Valley, for amicus curiae, Medical Mut. Liability Ins. Soc. of Maryland.

Paul D. Bekman, Scott R. Scherr, Baltimore, and John J. Sellinger, Rockville, for amicus curiae, Maryland Trial Lawyers Ass'n and Russ M. Herman, New Orleans, Louisiana, for amicus curiae, Ass'n of Trial Lawyers of America.

H. Thomas Howell, Alan N. Gamse, Kathleen Howard Meredith, Scott D. Goetsch and Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, Baltimore, for amicus curiae, The Nat. Ass'n of Independent Insurers and The Maryland Ass'n of Defense Trial Counsel.

Michael T. Wharton, David A. Roling and Wharton, Levin & Ehrmantraut, Annapolis, for amicus curiae, The Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc. and the Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass'n of the U.S., Inc.

Argued before GARRITY, ALPERT and CATHELL, JJ.

ALPERT, Judge.

The "cap" on damages in personal injury cases 1 has been the subject of much controversy and debate within and without the legal profession. One recent law review article even suggests that we "blast the cap" that limits recovery of noneconomic damages in personal injury actions. 2 As shall be seen, we choose not to follow that suggestion. While the centerpiece of our decision in this case is the constitutionality of the cap, there also are other important issues that we must address. We begin with a brief summary of the incident that precipitated this action and an overview of the case's procedural history. We will add other factual details as they become necessary for our discussion of the issues.

Shortly after noon on a clear December day in 1987, Richard Edmonds was driving north on Interstate 83 in Baltimore County in a tractor trailer owned by his employer, Port East Transfer Company (Port East). The road surface was dry and visibility was good. Suddenly, the truck's left front tire exploded, causing Edmonds to lose control of the vehicle. The truck, which had been in the center lane, crossed over the left lane northbound, the grass median, and the three southbound lanes before colliding with an embankment on the southbound side of the highway. Sarah Murphy was driving in one of the southbound lanes when her car collided with Edmonds's truck. Ms. Murphy suffered serious physical injuries.

Sarah Murphy and her husband, Clark Murphy, Jr. (appellees), filed suit against Edmonds and Port East (appellants) in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County alleging gross negligence and negligence, and seeking compensatory and punitive damages. A jury trial was conducted in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County (Judge Joseph F. Murphy, Jr., presiding) in August 1989. At the trial, the Murphys presented evidence that, inter alia: (1) Edmonds was late for a delivery in Harrisburg; (2) the tire blew out because it had been improperly repaired; (3) before the accident, the tire had two visible holes; and (4) Edmonds dove to the floor of the truck because he feared for his life. The jury returned a verdict awarding compensatory damages against both appellants in the total amount of $797,165.31, of which $510,000 were awarded for pain and suffering. The jury also awarded punitive damages of $3,000 against Edmonds and punitive damages of $1,000,000 against Port East.

Appellants filed a motion requesting that the trial court apply § 11-108(b) to the noneconomic damages awarded to the Murphys, as well as a motion for remittitur or, in the alternative, for a new trial, pursuant to Md. Rule 2-533. Judge Murphy denied both motions. He refused to apply the cap because he concluded that it violated equal protection provisions. 3 Judgment was entered on the jury's verdict on September 19, 1989. Appellants filed this appeal two days later and assert that:

I. The trial court erred in holding that the cap statute was unconstitutional.

II. The trial court erred in holding that the award for loss of homemaker services was not includable within the cap.

III. The plaintiffs failed to present evidence sufficient to justify an award of compensatory damages against either defendant.

IV. The plaintiffs failed to present evidence sufficient to justify an award of punitive damages against either defendant.

V. The lower court erred in failing to instruct the jury on the doctrine of sudden emergency.

VI. The lower court erred in failing to instruct the jury regarding the plaintiffs' burden to establish notice of the defect.

VII. The trial court erred in denying the defendants' motion for new trial or in the alternative remittitur on the issue of punitive damages.

I. THE CAP

The cap statute, Md.Cts. & Jud.Proc.Code Ann. § 11-108(b), requires that a trial judge in a personal injury action reduce any jury verdict for noneconomic damages that exceeds $350,000. 4 Noneconomic damages are defined as pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of consortium, or other nonpecuniary injury, but does not include punitive damages. Id. at § 11-108(a). In the instant case, Judge Murphy ruled that the cap was unconstitutional under an equal protection analysis, and therefore refused to reduce the jury's $510,000 award for pain and suffering to $350,000. In so ruling, Judge Murphy chose not to address other constitutional attacks that appellees mounted on the cap. Nevertheless, we shall address them.

A. Presumption of Constitutionality

At the outset of our discussion of the cap's constitutionality, we note that "statutes are generally presumed to be constitutional, ... they should not be declared otherwise unless the repugnancy is clear, and ... courts should avoid declaring a statute invalid if there is some less drastic way of deciding the case." Miller v. Maloney Concrete Co., 63 Md.App. 38, 46-47, 491 A.2d 1218 (1985). As the court in Sun Oil Co. v. Goldstein, 453 F.Supp. 787, 791 (D.Md.1978) noted, "[T]he presumption of constitutionality attaches to the enactment of every statute. The burden is on plaintiff to overcome this presumption." Thus, appellees in the case before us were required to overcome a strong presumption that the cap was constitutional.

B. Right to Jury Trial

On the subject of the right to a jury trial, we note that "[a]s of yet, the Seventh Amendment per se has not been applied to proceedings in state courts. Thus, we need only examine the statute's constitutional muster under the analogous state constitutional provision." Potomac Electric Power Co. v. Smith, 79 Md.App. 591, 626 n. 20, 558 A.2d 768 cert. denied, 317 Md. 393, 564 A.2d 407 (1989) (citations omitted). 5 The Maryland right to jury trial provision is Article 23 of the Declaration of Rights, which states in pertinent part that:

The right of 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 hundred dollars, shall be inviolably preserved.

Appellees contend that the cap, requiring noneconomic damages to be stricken if they exceed $350,000, "interferes with [Ms. Murphy's] fundamental right to have the issue fully determined by a judgment of her peers under Article 23." In support of their argument, the Murphys cite Chauffers, Teamsters and Helpers, Local 391 v. Terry, --- U.S. ----, 110 S.Ct. 1339, 108 L.Ed.2d 519 (1990), in which the Supreme Court stated that:

Maintenance of the jury as a fact-finding body is of such importance and occupies so firm a place in our history and jurisprudence that any seeming curtailment of the right to a jury trial should be scrutinized with the utmost care.

Id. at ----, 110 S.Ct. at 1344-45, 108 L.Ed.2d at 528 (quoting Beacon Theatres, Inc. v. Westover, 359 U.S. 500, 501, 79 S.Ct. 948, 952, 3 L.Ed.2d 988 (1959)).

We addressed the constitutionality of § 11-108(b) under Article 23 last year in Potomac Electric, supra. In that case, the personal representative of the estate of an adolescent killed when she came into contact with the power company's high voltage line brought a wrongful death action against the power company pursuant to Maryland's wrongful death statute, Md.Cts. & Jud.Proc.Code Ann. §§ 3-901 to 904. We noted that wrongful death beneficiaries had only been permitted to recover for noneconomic damages under the statute since 1969. We held that § 11-108(b) did not violate Article 23 as it pertained to wrongful death actions, saying:

The General Assembly would be well within its authority to abolish wrongful death actions if it chose to do so. Certainly, it would be well within its authority to repeal the 1969 statute permitting recovery for noneconomic loss in wrongful death actions. Within its powers to create a cause of action or abolish a statutory cause of action is the power to modify such statutory actions. Limitation of the jury's determination of damages in a statutorily-created cause of action is a proper modification of the remedy available in such actions and does not violate Article 23 of Maryland's Declaration of Rights.

Potomac Electric, 79 Md. at 628, 558 A.2d 768. We specifically declined to decide, however, whether the cap violates Article 23 when applied to common law actions for personal injuries such as the one before us now.

In Franklin v. Mazda Motor Corp., 704 F.Supp. 1325 (D.Md.1989), U.S. District Court Judge Paul Niemeyer concluded that the cap did not violate the seventh amendment or Article 23, opining that

[A] legislature...

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