Last week in Keller v. Serio, the Maryland Court of Appeals took yet another look at two issues that have been reoccurring leitmotifs in Maryland appellate opinions: (1) to what extent can we talk about uninsured motorist coverage in an uninsured motorist case and (2) whether a jury can award zero damages when all the facts suggested otherwise. Keller is a motor vehicle negligence action instituted solely against the at-fault driver. Negligence was conceded, and the issues at trial were confined to causation and damages. GEICO, although not a party to the action, realized the possibility that, as the plaintiff’s insurer, the plaintiff might get a verdict exceeding the liability coverage. GEICO intervened in the case. At trial, GEICO did the “UM potted plant defense” of just sitting at the trial table and doing absolutely nothing. Plaintiff’s counsel alluded to GEICO during opening statements but thereafter did not mention the insurer, its policy, or anything about UM policies. At the close of the trial, the plaintiff’s counsel sought an instruction clarifying for the jury (a) how UM policies work and how they should not influence an award of damages and (b) clarify any confusion that may have resulted from GEICO’s presence at the trial. The trial court refused the instruction. The jury returned $29,355.69 in economic damages, yet $0 in noneconomic damages. That, folks, is what you call a bad verdict. Plaintiff argued that such a breakdown of damages is inconsistent, illogical, and evidence that the trial court’s failure to give the UM instruction was reversible error. No one can argue with the former part of that sentence. It is illogical to say someone incurred nearly $30,000 in medical bills and did not suffer unless the evidence was that the Plaintiff was made of stone. The question is whether it warrants nullifying the jury’s verdict and whether the uninsured motorist mess played out appropriately. The Maryland high court said no and yes and shot down the plaintiff”s appeal.
The Uninsured Motorist Instruction
Plaintiff’s big beef was that failing to give the desired UM instruction was confusing to the jury. It almost certainly was. They had to be asking themselves, “Why is GEICO here and why is their lawyer not saying anything?” But the uninsured motorist issue was never properly before the jury. The plaintiff’s lawyer never offered the insurance agreement into evidence. The Plaintiff took his best shot by pushing the court to follow Boone v. American Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Co. Boone is the classic “should have given the UM instruction case.” In that case, the issue of UM policies was central to that case, because the UM provider was one of the parties to the action. The Boone court found reversible error in the trial court’s failure to give a requested instruction on UM policies, because UM policies were a focal point of the trial. The Court of Appeals distinguished that holding by citing the fact that nothing about UM policies was ever entered into evidence. Although mentioned in opening statements, opening statements are not evidence. So while an instruction was essential in Boone, the court found it was not essential or even wise under the circumstances of this case.
The “Juries Can Give What They Want” Holding
It is, to use the legal term, crazy train to award $30,000 in medical bills and nothing in pain and suffering. The question is can a jury do it? While some states have held that an award for economic damages associated with the treatment of pain is inconsistent with a failure to award any money for pain and suffering, Maryland has not. Maryland courts have said this repeatedly. End of story and end of this appeal. Juries can do what they want, and this includes seemingly inconsistent civil jury verdicts.