Maryland’s highest court on Tuesday upheld a law that says people cannot recover damages from an injury in a negligence case if they are found to be partly at fault.
In a 5-2 ruling, the Court of Appeals declined to change the law of contributory negligence. Retired Judge John Eldridge noted that attempts to change the law in the Legislature have failed consistently.
“For this court to change the common law and abrogate 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,” Eldridge wrote.
The law was last reviewed by the Maryland court 30 years ago. From 1966 to 1982, the Maryland General Assembly considered 21 bills seeking to change the contributory negligence standard, and none of the measures were enacted.
Judge Glenn Harrell, writing in dissent along with recently retired Judge Robert Bell, compared the law to “a dinosaur.”
“With the force of a modern asteroid strike, this court should render, in the present case, this dinosaur extinct,” Harrell wrote.
Harrell noted that only Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina and the District of Columbia still have the law. Harrell wrote that 46 states use a comparative negligence system that reduces the damages an injured person can receive in proportion to his or her degree of fault.
“The all-or-nothing consequences of the application of contributory negligence have long been criticized by scholars and commentators,” Harrell wrote.
The business community had kept a close eye on the case.
Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB Small Business Legal Center, praised the ruling. The National Federation of Independent Business filed a brief in the case contending that Maryland’s small businesses would be negatively affected at a time when many already are struggling.
“While it is important that businesses take the proper steps to ensure safety on their property, abandoning contributory negligence would have only led to uncertainty, rising insurance premiums and an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits for employers,” Harned said in a statement.
The case was brought by a soccer player, James Coleman, who had volunteered to assist in coaching a team of young players in a program of the Soccer Association of Columbia in Howard County.
In 2008, while assisting the coach during practice, he jumped up and grabbed the crossbar of a goal to retrieve a ball. The goal was not anchored, and Coleman fell backward, drawing the weight of the crossbar onto his face. He suffered multiple severe facial fractures. He sued the soccer association. A jury concluded the association was negligent, but it also found that Coleman was negligent, and the trial court entered a judgment in favor of the soccer association.
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