Maryland’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has ruled that if you contribute to your claimed injuries, even if the other party is primarily at fault, then you cannot recover damages for your injuries. This doctrine, known as “Contributory Negligence” has reigned in Maryland for over 30 years, and was upheld in a ruling by the Court 30 years ago. A recent case asked the Court to review the doctrine of “Contributory Negligence”. Many states now have a standard known as “Comparative Fault” or “Comparative Negligence” in which a jury decides how much of a damage award the injured party is entitled to and then apportions the award between the party who was negligent and the party who contributed to his or her injuries. Many of those states have adopted the Comparative Negligence doctrine through legislation.
The facts of the recent Maryland Court of Appeals decision, titled Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, involved a young volunteer soccer coach who kicked a ball into a soccer goal that was not anchored to the ground. As he entered the goalmouth to retrieve the ball he jumped up and grabbed the crossbar for the goal. The unanchored goal fell on him as his weight pulled it down causing him severe facial injuries and requiring extensive surgery and facial reconstruction. Mr. Coleman sued the Soccer Association claiming it was at fault for his injuries for not securing the goal properly. A jury found that Mr. Coleman contributed to his injuries by leaping up and grabbing onto the crossbar. As a result of the jury’s finding and the doctrine of Contributory Negligence, Mr. Coleman could not recover damages from the Soccer Association for his injuries.
Only two exceptions exist to the doctrine of Contributory Negligence. The first is known as “Last Clear Chance”. When that exception is invoked by the courts, it means that even though the injured party may have contributed to his or her injuries, the person who mainly caused the injuries, the defendant, had one last clear opportunity to avoid the injuries altogether and, therefore, the contributory negligence of the injured party is negated. The second exception applies when the person contributing to his or her injuries is under five years of age, the age of the person thereby negating any contributory negligence on his or her part.
“Contributory Negligence” is part of the “common law” of Maryland. It was put in place by the courts and may continue until changed by the courts or the legislature. Maryland’s legislature has had many opportunities to adopt a “Comparative Fault” or “Comparative Negligence” standard for the type of case highlighted by Coleman and favored by many legal, but has failed to pass any law dealing with the subject.
In light of the Maryland legislature’s failure to change the doctrine of Contributory Negligence to one of Comparative Negligence, the Maryland Court of Appeals felt it should not do so. The Court felt that a matter of such public policy importance should be left to lawmakers to change, not judges. Two judges of the Court of Appeals disagreed with the majority decision and filed a lengthy dissent from it. So for now, if you are injured in an accident and did anything at all to contribute to that accident, you cannot recover a single penny in Maryland.