Small-claims court bill gets Senate's OK


The Maryland Senate gave final approval yesterday to a bill that would make it easier for people to settle small-claims disputes.

In a unanimous vote, the Senate agreed to increase to $5,000 the amount a person could sue for in a small-claims case. The House of Delegates approved the same bill in February, and the measure now goes to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The governor vetoed a similar proposal last year at the urging of the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, and it is unclear whether he would do the same this year.

The effort to increase the limit from $2,500 is part of a nationwide campaign to make small-claims court more accessible to consumers and small-business owners.

"It's just good government," said James C. Turner, executive director of Help Abolish Legal Tyranny (HALT), the organization conducting the campaign. "The whole rationale for setting up small-claims courts is to help consumers settle disputes and free the court for more important things."

Yesterday, the Washington-based HALT issued grades for each state's small-claims process. Maryland received the eighth-worst overall ranking.

In Maryland, a person with a claim of $2,500 or less can take the case to District Court, where plaintiffs generally do not hire a lawyer. Disputes involving more than that amount are generally heard in Circuit Court, where many plaintiffs find they need a lawyer to navigate the complicated and often clogged legal system.

The state's $2,500 limit, which has not been raised since 1987, is lower than the limit in 39 states.

Del. Robert C. Baldwin, an Anne Arundel County Republican who introduced the bill, said many people are not collecting debts between $2,500 and $5,000.

"When you are owed a little bit of money like that and you go to a lawyer, you cannot afford to pay the lawyer to do the work and still get a so-called profit," Baldwin said.

The Maryland Trial Lawyers Association opposes the bill, but defeating it was not one of their priorities, said Bruce Plaxen, the association's president.

The trial lawyers oppose the bill because they worry that plaintiffs lose their right to discovery in District Court.

"If you file suit, you need certain documents," Plaxen said. "You need to find out what the other side's position is."

Privately, some district judges have said they also oppose the bill because they worry the additional small-claims cases will clog up their system.

Glendening noted the trial lawyers' opposition and the lack of discovery when he vetoed the measure last year.

The veto angered supporters of the proposal, who say the governor caved in to pressure from the trial lawyers because they 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 the race.

"Surely, the trial lawyers should not be calling the shots," Turner said.

Plaxen responded, "Any suggestion that the governor would be influenced by financial contributions would be simply unfounded."

Turner said Maryland's $2,500 limit is one reason his organization rated Maryland's small-claims process so poorly. HALT issued the rankings after grading states in several categories, including maximum limits for cases, the hours such courts operate and accessibility of filing forms.

If Glendening signs the bill raising the limits, Maryland's overall ranking would rise from the eighth-worst state to the ninth-best, Turner said.

Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said he does not know whether the governor will sign it, but expects "it will be a topic in veto meetings."

Several other states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Hawaii, are considering raising their small-claims limit. Two years ago, Idaho raised its limit from $3,000 to $4,000 and Connecticut raised its from $2,500 to $3,500. Washington state raised its limit last year from $2,500 to $4,000.

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