Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Possible change to Maryland's legal standard in negligence cases

On September 10, 2012, Maryland's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, heard oral arguments on whether the court should overturn Maryland's contributory negligence standard for negligence cases, which provides that a defendant cannot be held liable for damages if the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to any degree to his injuries.  In the case of James K. Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, et al., the Court considered whether contributory negligence should continue to be the law in this state, or whether the state should switch to a comparative negligence standard.

In the Coleman case, the plaintiff was injured when the soccer goal he jumped on and attempted to swing from, but which was not properly secured, fell over on him.  The jury in Howard County found that the Soccer Association of Columbia, which maintained the goal, was negligent.  However, the jury also found that Mr. Coleman was contributorily negligent, or partially at fault (because he was using the goal improperly), and therefore, Mr. Coleman was barred from recovery.

Contributory negligence is a principle that completely bars a plaintiff’s recovery if the plaintiff's actions in any way contributed to his injury, even if those actions were only a minor cause of the injury. The contributory negligence standard is an historic legal principle that remains in effect in only five jurisdictions in the United States: Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and Alabama.

Most states have adopted the "more modern" comparative negligence standard in which in any case alleging negligence the fault of all parties is compared.  These states employ varying schemes but in general, the plaintiff's recovery is not blocked by a finding of his own negligence, but that finding is taken into account in determining how much he can recover.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments from the parties, as well as several national groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Medical Association and American Insurance Association.  A Washington Post article about the case suggests that the court may be willing to overturn the current standard and adopt comparative negligence. In that event there would most likely be legislative initiatives in Annapolis to overturn the court's ruling and return to the contributory negligence standard. The Maryland legislature has never supported any legislative attempts to install the comparative negligence standard.

The Maryland Horse Council supports continuing the contributory negligence standard, which historically has provided good protection for horse owners and horse business owners against claims of negligence. Switching to a comparative negligence standard would result in more awards of damages, which would in turn likely cause insurance premiums to rise.

The Court of Appeals decision is pending. Stay tuned!