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Most personal injury cases deal with negligence. In Maryland, there are four elements in a cause of action for negligence. A person suing for negligence, whether it be from a car accident or slip and fall, must show:
- Duty: The defendant has a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury,
- Breach: The defendant failed in that duty,
- Causation: The harm suffered was a result of the breach of duty by the defendant, and,
- Damages: That the plaintiff suffered harm
Rosenblatt v. Exxon, 335 Md. 58, 76 (1994).
A legal duty is the requirement of a person to act in a certain way so as to protect other people from an “unreasonable risk of harm.” Rosenblatt, 335 Md. at 76. If there is no duty to act in a particular manner owed by the defendant to the plaintiff then the defendant cannot be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries. Rhaney v. Umes, 388 Md. 585, 597 (2005). One of the most important factors a court will look at in determining if a defendant owed a duty is foreseeability. Muthukumarana v. Montgomery County, 370 Md. 447, 511 (2002). Basically, the court will determine how foreseeable it was that the defendant’s actions would cause harm to the plaintiff under the circumstances of that case.
There are constraints on a persons’s duty that the law recognizes. First one’s duty is not infinite. It is limited so as “to avoid liability for unreasonably remote consequences.” Id. at 512. Additionally, the law usually does not recognize an affirmative duty to act to aid or protect another person, absent a special relationship. Warr v. JMGM Grp., 70 A.3d 347, 368 (Md. 2013). So if you are walking down the street and see a person trapped in a burning car, absent a special relationship, you are likely not under a legal duty to rescue them. However, it is important to note that if you do choose to act to aid or rescue another, you need to use reasonable care in doing so. Muthukumarana, 370 Md. at 482-83 (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323 (1965)). Failure to do this can subject the rescuer to liability for damages from injuries the person being rescued received as a result of the rescuer’s negligence. Id.
A breach of duty is defined as “the failure to act as the law obligates one to act.” Black’s Law Dictionary 214 (9th ed. 2009). Everyone is required to act with reasonable care to protect others from an unreasonable risk of harm. Warr v. JMGM Grp., 70 A.3d 347, 368 (Md. 2013). Breach is usually measured by what the reasonably prudent person would do under the same or similar circumstances. A reasonably prudent person is “[a] hypothetical person used as a legal standard, especially to determine whether someone acted with negligence; specifically, a person who exercises the degree of attention, knowledge, intelligence, and the judgment that society requires of its members for the protection of their own and of others’ interests.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1380 (9th ed. 2009). If the defendant’s actions are deemed to fall below that of the reasonably prudent person in the case at issue, a judge or jury may determine that the defendant breached their duty to the plaintiff.
The third element of negligence is usually broken up into two parts, cause-in-fact and proximate cause.
Cause In Fact
Cause-in-fact simply means “[t]he cause without which the event could not have occurred.” Black’s Law Dictionary 250 (9th ed. 2009) and deals with the “fundamental . . . inquiry of whether the defendant’s conduct actually produced an injury.” Peterson v. Underwood, 258 Md. 9, 16-17 (1970). Essentially, would the accident have occurred but-for the actions of the defendant? A defendant can still be held liable for negligence even where his or her conduct is not the sole cause of the injury. Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co. v. Kenney, 323 Md. 116, 127 (1991).
As mentioned previously, a person’s duty is finite, it does not create liability for every single event down the chain of causation. A defendant’s actions must have proximately caused a plaintiff’s injuries. Proximate cause is the second component of causation. It means a “cause that is legally sufficient to result in liability.” Black’s Law Dictionary 250 (9th ed. 2009). Thus, while it might be true that in a particular case, the plaintiff’s injuries would not have happened but-for the defendant’s negligence, there are factors that can prevent a defendant’s liability from extending to every potential plaintiff. Peterson, 258 Md. at 16.
For example, in the case of Bloom v. Good Humor Ice Cream Co., 179 Md. 384 (1941), a Good Humor ice cream truck was parked on the west of the side of the street in Baltimore one summer day. Id. at 385. The driver invited the 10-year old Bloom to purchase some ice cream. Id. at 385-86. Bloom, who was on the east side of the street, crossed the street unharmed, made a purchase, and was returning to his side of the street when he was struck by an oncoming car. Id. Bloom suffered significant injuries and he, through his parents, brought suit against Good Humor Ice Cream Company seeking to recover damages for the injuries he received from the car accident. Id.
The Baltimore City Court sustained a motion to dismiss the case brought by the defendants and Bloom appealed that ruling. The Court of Appeals of Maryland addressed the issue of proximate cause stating “the universally accepted rule as to the proximate cause is that, unless an act, or omission of a duty, or both, are the direct and continuing cause of an injury, recovery will not be allowed.” Id. at 387. The court went on to say that, “[t]he negligent acts must continue through every event and occurrence, and itself be the natural and logical cause of the injury.” Id. Proximate cause “must be the natural and probable consequence of the negligent act, unbroken by any intervening agency, and where the negligence of any one person is merely passive, and potential, while the negligence of another is the moving and effective cause of the injury, the latter is the proximate cause and fixes the liability.” Id.
The court pointed out that there is no definite rule on what constitutes too remote of a cause and that it usually depends on the facts and circumstances of the particular case at issue. Id. at 388. In holding Good Humor Ice Cream Company was not liable, the court stated that the accident occurred after Bloom had made his purchase and that there was no evidence that Bloom should not have been aware of the danger of crossing the street, stating that the “act on the part of appellant [Bloom], and the approaching automobile, were the separate and intervening causes of the accident.” Id.
Lastly, in order to recover compensation, the plaintiff typically must prove that he or she suffered some kind of harm from the defendant’s actions, be it personal injury or property damage. If the plaintiff cannot prove there was harm done, then no recovery will be possible. See, Peroti v. Williams, 258 Md. 663, 670 (1970) (“[A]ctual damages are a prerequisite for liability in a negligence cases, and nominal damages, or ‘technical liability’ do not exist.”).
Types of Damages
The three main types of damages you can collect in a personal injury case are: economic damages, noneconomic damages, and punitive damages.
- Economic Damages: This defined under Maryland law as “loss of earnings and medical expenses” and includes both past and future medical expenses as well as past and future lost earnings. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 11-109 (LexisNexis 2015).
- Noneconomic Damages: Noneconomic damages include “pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of consortium, or other nonpecuniary injury.” See id. § 11-108.
- Punitive Damages: Economic and noneconomic damages are designed to compensate the plaintiff. In contrast, punitive damages are awarded to in order punish the defendant for unacceptable behavior and deter any further similar behavior in the future. Smith v. Gray Concrete Pipe Co., 267 Md. 149, 159 (1972).
Contributory Negligence- A Defense
Contributory negligence is a legal defense to liability in negligence, strict liability, and intentional tort cases. It is a doctrine that was first stated in an old English case, Butterfield v. Forrester. In that case Butterfield was riding his horse down a street in a reckless manner and, due to his carelessness, did not see and was injured by a pole Forrester had placed in the roadway while he was repairing his house. The court held that “‘[o]ne person being in fault will not dispense with another’s using ordinary care for himself.'” Coleman v. Soccer Ass’n of Columbia, 69 A.3d 1149, 1153 (Md. 2013) (quoting Butterfield v. Forrestor, 11 East 60, 103 Eng. Rep. 926 (K.B. 1809)).
This doctrine was later adopted by Maryland courts in 1847 and remains the law of the land to this day, with the court upholding the doctrine as recently as 2013. Coleman, 69 A.3d 1194. Contributory negligence requires absolutely no fault on the part of the plaintiff. If the plaintiff turns out to be even 1% negligent then the he or she is completely barred from recovering any damages from the defendant.
- Last Clear Chance: The last clear chance doctrine is an exception to contributory negligence. It states “that the negligence of a party suing for damages for an accident is irrelevant if the party being sued could have avoided the accident by reasonable care in the final moments before the accident.”
Due to the harsh nature of contributory negligence, the majority of states today have adopted some form of comparative negligence. Comparative negligence assigns fault to the plaintiff and defendant in accordance with the amount of negligence each committed, if any. If and how much a plaintiff can recover depends on the type of comparative negligence the state adopted:
- Pure Comparative Negligence: With a pure standard the plaintiff can recover damages even if he or she was more at fault for the accident than the defendant.
- Modified Comparative Negligence (Less than 50%): The plaintiff’s negligence must be less than the defendant’s negligence under this standard. The defendant must be at least 51% liable for the accident or the plaintiff cannot recover.
- Modified Comparative Negligence (50% or less): Under this standard the plaintiff and defendant can be equally at fault for the accident and the plaintiff can still recover compensation. The plaintiff’s award is reduced by the percentage he or she is at fault.
Veronica was speeding down North Charles Street. Betty failed to stop at a stop sign and hit Veronica. In a state with pure comparative negligence the jury would take into account both parties negligence and apportion fault (and damages) accordingly. Let’s say that the jury decided that Betty was 80% at fault for running a stop sign and Veronica was 20% at fault for speeding. If the jury then awards Veronica $10,000 in damages, under the doctrine of pure comparative negligence, Veronica could still recover damages. However, he damages would be reduced by the percentage she was at fault. Thus, Veronica would recover $8,000 instead of $10,000.
If you or a loved one has been in an accident or suffered an injury due to the another’s negligence, please do not hesitate to contact Gilman & Bedigian today.