Fault in Maryland Personal Injury Cases
Whether you are involved in a car accident, slip and fall or any other type of personal injury claim, one of the primary issues are who was at fault for the incident. In some cases, the fault is not in dispute (such as most rear car crashes), but in many others, fault or liability, can be a subject of great dispute. So what does this mean for your personal injury case?
Unfortunately, Maryland is one of only five jurisdictions in the entire country that continues to employ contributory negligence in personal injury cases. Most states have adopted what is called comparative negligence which, for reasons more fully set forth below, is more favorable and fair to personal injury victims in that it determines the degree of fault between the parties. So what is the difference between comparative negligence and contributory negligence?
Under the doctrine of comparative negligence, when both the plaintiff and the defendant failed to exercise the required degree of care, fault or blame is relatively apportioned between the two parties, and then damages to the Plaintiff is determined based on that apportionment.
So, for example, if a Plaintiff had a case that was worth $100,000, but a jury determined that the parties were both 50% at fault, the Plaintiff would be awarded a judgment of $50,000. If the jury determined that the Plaintiff was only 10% at fault, he or she would receive a judgment of $90,000.
This effectively reduces the amount of the judgment in proportion to the degree that the Plaintiff was deemed to be at fault and, to most people, this would be considered a fair and reasonable outcome. So the Defendant is only obligated to the Plaintiff based on the percentage of fault they bear for the incident.
However, as noted, Maryland does not use comparative negligence, but rather employs the doctrine of contributory negligence. And, as noted, this outcome is far more harsh to Plaintiffs and results in unfair and unreasonable outcomes. Maryland law defines contributory negligence as “the conduct on the part of the plaintiff that falls below the standard to which he should conform for his protection, and which is a legally contributing cause co-operating with the negligence of the defendant . . .”
Under this rule, if it is determined that the Plaintiff failure to exercise the required degree of care, no matter how minor or insignificant, they would be completely barred from recovering. In essence, the conduct of the Defendant is made legally irrelevant unless they are 100% at fault.
Using the same example as above, if a Plaintiff had a case worth $100,000, and the jury determined that the parties were both 50% at fault, the Plaintiff would receive nothing. If the jury determined that the Plaintiff was 10% at fault, the Plaintiff would still receive nothing.
Even if the jury believed that the Plaintiff was only 1% at fault for their injuries, he or she would be completely barred from recovering anything from a party that, in the eyes of the jury, was 99% at fault for the accident.
As you can see, this is incredibly punitive and unfair to Plaintiffs and results in unjust outcomes at trial. It effectively immunizes and protects at-fault parties from being responsible for the consequences of their actions by placing the burden on the Plaintiff to prove that they in no way contributed to the incident in question.
Current Law in Maryland
Unfortunately, while contributory negligence may be unfair or unjust to Plaintiffs, it continues to be the law in Maryland. In fact, in the last seven years, the Court of Appeals of Maryland (our State’s highest court) has twice been presented with the question of whether to change Maryland law making it more fair, and bringing it in line with the vast majority of the other states.
However, both times the Court declined to do so, expressly holding that if the law was to be changed, it had to be changed by the legislature, not the judiciary. In a dissenting opinion, one of the Judges indicated his belief that the law will eventually be changed legislatively in Maryland – and that may be the case – but as of right now, Maryland still employs contributory negligence.
Last Clear Chance Doctrine
In 1868, the Court of Appeals of Maryland adopted what is known as the last clear chance doctrine. This legal principle provides a potential “lifeline” to Plaintiffs who are deemed to have been contributorily negligent for their injuries.
The doctrine applies where the accident victim has through his or her own negligence placed herself in danger of injury at the hands of another, but where the Defendant had a “fresh opportunity” following the contributory negligence to avoid the accident and fails to do so.
So, for example, if a pedestrian tries to run across the street without the right of way and gets hit by a car, the pedestrian was clearly at least partially at fault for their injuries.
However, if it can be demonstrated that the driver of the vehicle witnessed the pedestrian in plenty of time to take evasive or defensive action, and failed to do so, the Defendant may be deemed to have had the last clear chance to avoid the collision and could therefore be deemed at fault, even though the Plaintiff was themselves negligent in running across the street.
Needless to say, this is a very complicated legal principle and very fact-specific, meaning that whether it applies will be based on the facts of that particular case.
What Does This Mean for Me?
As you can see from all of the above, Maryland law is very complicated and without the benefit of excellent legal representation, you could find yourself without compensation for your injuries, including your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. These rules and principles apply not only to car accidents but also to premises liability cases, products liability cases, and potentially even malpractice cases.
So if you’ve been injured in a car accident, slip and fall, or malpractice case anywhere in the state of Maryland, and you are looking for a personal injury lawyer to protect your rights, call us today at 443-275-6345. There is no fee unless we recover, so there is no risk. Let us fight for you, so you can focus on yourself, your family, and your recovery.
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