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Maryland courts need a ‘three suitcases and you’re out’ rule | COMMENTARY

Trial tables are outfitted with protective barriers, hand sanitizer, wipes and headets in the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore.
Trial tables are outfitted with protective barriers, hand sanitizer, wipes and headets in the Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

I think it has been proven somewhere, perhaps in laboratory tests, that some people are more litigious than others. They like to sue for damages. Perhaps, after a while, it becomes a side gig more profitable than selling yard sale items on eBay.

These and other speculations about human nature occurred to me as I served as a juror in a civil case in Baltimore Circuit Court, the first time I’ve been called to jury duty since the courts reopened after the pandemic shutdown. To my shock, we were told that the plaintiff was a veteran of personal injury litigation; he had filed claims against various parties at least five other times, according to the lawyer defending an insurance company against the current lawsuit. The plaintiff had claimed injury of some sort in 2004, 2005, 2008, 2016 and 2020, the lawyer said.

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The case before us stemmed from a motor vehicle accident on the Jones Falls Expressway in November 2017. The plaintiff claimed injury to head and neck, and he sought $31,000 in medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.

Right away, I was skeptical, primarily because of the plaintiff’s history of, as they say in Baltimore, “throwing suitcases.”

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I do not spend much time in this realm of our court system, the litigation between insurance companies or individuals seeking compensation for damage or death. Personal injury trials happen all the time — usually after attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement fail — but I can’t think of the last time I observed one. And, until Monday, I had only served on criminal juries, which could explain why I was surprised to hear of the plaintiff’s history of lawsuits.

In criminal trials, a defendant’s previous record is not admissible as evidence so as not to prejudice a jury. In the civil matter Monday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that the plaintiff’s previous litigation — apparently relevant because of the type of injuries he claimed — did not work against him. It certainly colored my thinking about the case.

The plaintiff was a 65-year-old Maryland transit system employee who was driving a state-owned Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck on the JFX near Cold Spring Lane when the truck was struck from behind by a sedan. The sedan sustained far more damage than did the truck. In fact, the damage to the truck was hardly visible in the photographs presented to the jury. Nevertheless, the driver of the truck claimed that the collision caused pain to his head and neck. An ambulance took him to Sinai Hospital.

It’s important to note that the driver of the sedan had admitted responsibility for the accident. So we were not being asked to establish liability, only the level of damages to be awarded.

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The plaintiff testified about what had happened to him, describing the accident and his pain, the treatment he received and the physical therapy he underwent at a clinic recommended by his attorney. In fact, he went for physical therapy 26 times, with the $230-per-visit bills sent to his attorney’s firm. The plaintiff, who makes $30.79 an hour doing repairs on rail lines for the Mass Transit Administration, missed 67 days of work. He said he suffered from headaches for between four and six months.

Now I appreciate that physical labor takes place in a far different world than the one in which I’ve toiled through most of my life. It’s hard to imagine being 60-something and doing the heavy lifts that come with the plaintiff’s job. I admit to being sympathetic — that a man of the plaintiff’s age, employed in rail work for most of his life, might feel bodily pains from a fender bender in a way that a younger person might not. I admit some prejudice against insurance companies. I appreciate the fact that, unsatisfied with a settlement offer from an insurance company, we all have the right to pursue costs and damages in court.

But I found the plaintiff unconvincing in describing his pain, and that compounded the skepticism I was already feeling because of his track record of litigation. That business of five other lawsuits bothered me into deliberations. It kind of hardened my bias against people who think of lawsuits as a side gig.

I was not alone in that feeling. The other jurors were skeptical that the plaintiff’s pain had been as long lasting as claimed. We deliberated for maybe 30 minutes and awarded him $4,374 for hospital costs, then grumbled our way to another $4,277 in wages.

What a waste of time. Coming out of the pandemic shutdown, there is a backlog of jury trials in the courts of Maryland. Baltimore Circuit Judge Jeffrey M. Geller ran an efficient jury selection and trial, but it struck me that his time would have been better spent presiding over one of the many criminal cases delayed by the coronavirus in Baltimore.

The Constitution of Maryland guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil matters when “the amount in controversy exceeds the sum of $15,000.”

In November 2022, Maryland voters will get to vote on a constitutional amendment raising that amount to $25,000. Good. But it should probably be even higher.

And I propose a new rule to limit the number of times a person can file a lawsuit for personal injury within 10 years: Three suitcases and you’re out.

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