An appellate panel ruled 3-0 to uphold a lower Anne Arundel County court ruling where a woman was awarded $50,000 after tripping over the lid of a water meter unit. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals, the second highest court in the state, found that the county was liable for the injuries based on a failure to “properly install equipment on off-sidewalk walkways.” The injury occurred upon a strip of grassy land that the city maintains. Local governments are generally afforded governmental immunity; however, the judges found that the maintenance of streets, sidewalks, etc. are “proprietary functions” and immunity did not apply. They ruled that the county was negligent in their responsibility to maintain the land in conditions that were reasonably safe.
Plaintiff Janine Fratantuono was walking on the grassy area when her foot struck the water meter lid, which flipped open. Her left foot then stepped into the opening and caused her leg injuries. The county quickly filed a request for a summary judgment claiming that they were shielded by governmental immunity protection that was denied. During the trial, evidence was presented showing that the county had failed to adhere to their own design guidelines regarding the installation of the unit.
There are several principles based on prior cases that relate to pedestrian injuries resulting from the government's negligence as follows:
- Governmental immunity does not apply when the injury occurs on a paved public surface such as a street or sidewalk
- Governmental immunity does apply within public parks and swimming pools where the obligation to maintain the premises is “governmental in nature”
- Immunity protection does not apply when the injury occurs upon unpaved land where the government should recognize that pedestrians may cross
Contributory Negligence in Jury Instructions
The county asserted that the jury should have been given instructions regarding contributory negligence. They claimed that the plaintiff demonstrated negligence by walking in the area when a sidewalk was available for doing so. The county cited a statute of the Transportation Act stating that pedestrians may not walk in the road when a sidewalk is provided to do so. This law was established to limit pedestrian traffic in the streets. In this case, the plaintiff was walking next to the road but not on the road.
Contributory Negligence as a Defense
Defendants may use contributory negligence in their efforts when accused of negligent action. The case of Butterfield v. Forrester was referenced where a man was riding a horse in a reckless manner and struck an object a resident had placed in the street temporarily while conducting some home repairs. The court ruled that individuals must exercise ordinary care for themselves regardless of the fault of another party. The doctrine of contributory negligence in Maryland bars the plaintiff from recovering for damages when they are found to have demonstrated any degree of negligence.
Negligence (Fault) of Pedestrians
In areas where a sidewalk for pedestrian use is not provided, they are to walk on the left shoulder of the roadway. Pedestrians should move as close to the edge of the road as possible in the direction that faces oncoming traffic. There are instances where pedestrians have been found negligent in cases. Examples include when the individual is heavily intoxicated and steps off of the sidewalk, or if they abruptly try to run across the roadway amid traffic.