Md. high court, in ruling, refuses to do away with contributory negligence

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Jul 11, 2013

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) -- Maryland's high court, in a ruling earlier this week, declined to do away with the state's long-established common law principle of contributory negligence.

Changing the common law and repealing the contributory negligence defense in negligence actions -- in the face of the General Assembly's repeated refusal to do so -- would be "totally inconsistent" with the court's long-standing jurisprudence, retired and specially-assigned Judge John C. Eldridge wrote for the court Tuesday.

In Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, plaintiff James K. Coleman, described as an "accomplished" soccer player in court documents, volunteered to help coach a team of young players in a program of the Soccer Association of Columbia, in Howard County, Md.

On Aug. 19, 2008, Coleman, who was 20 years old at the time, was helping coach a practice at a field at Lime Kiln Middle School.

While the association had fields of its own, it didn't have enough to accommodate all of the players in the program. So, it was required to use school fields for practices.

At some point during that day's practice, Coleman kicked a soccer ball into the goal. When he went to retrieve the ball, he jumped up and grabbed the goal's metal top rail, or crossbar.

The crossbar was not anchored to the ground, causing Coleman to fall backwards, drawing the weight of the bar onto his face.

He suffered multiple severe facial fractures, which required surgery and the placing of three titanium plates in his face.

Coleman sued the association in Howard County Circuit Court, alleging he was injured by its negligence.

The association asserted the defense of contributory negligence.

A jury concluded that the association was negligent and its negligence caused the man's injuries.

However, the jury also found that Coleman was negligent, and that his negligence contributed to his own injuries.

Because of the contributory negligence finding, Coleman was barred from any recovery.

The trial court denied Coleman's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and subsequently entered judgment in favor of the association.

Coleman filed a notice of appeal, and the association filed a notice of cross-appeal.

Before briefing and argument in the state's Court of Special Appeals, Coleman filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the state's Court of Appeals, which it granted.

In his petition, Coleman posed only one question: Whether the state's high court should retain the standard of contributory negligence as the common law standard governing negligence cases in Maryland.

The court -- though it has the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence, it noted -- declined to do so.

"The petitioner in the case at bar presents the same issue that was presented in Harrison (v. Montgomery County Board of Education), namely whether this Court should change the common law and abrogate the defense of contributory negligence in certain types of tort actions," Eldridge wrote in the 15-page opinion. "After reviewing the issue again, we shall arrive at the same conclusion that the Court reached in Harrison."

He added, "The General Assembly's repeated failure to pass legislation abrogating the defense of contributory negligence is very strong evidence that the legislative policy in Maryland is to retain the principle of contributory negligence."

The American Tort Reform Association, Coalition for Litigation Justice Inc., American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, Physicians Insurers Association of America, American Medical Association, the National Federation of Independent Business' Small Business Legal Center and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce all filed amicus briefs in the case, arguing for continued application of the contributory negligence doctrine.

The Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform owns Legal Newsline.

Click here to read the court's full opinion.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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