Articles Posted in Government Liability

If an individual is injured in a Maryland car crash with a police officer or after an encounter with an officer, the individual’s ability to recover damages may be limited by qualified immunity. Qualified immunity, a doctrine that has been scrutinized in recent months, limits the ability of individuals to sue police officers after they have suffered injuries caused by police officers and other government officials.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 authorizes suits against state and local officials for violations of federal constitutional and statutory rights. The statute allows an individual to file a claim against a government official if the individual was deprived of a federal right and the government official acted under the color of state law. The statute is used by many Maryland plaintiffs to sue government officials in the state. Local governments may also be liable if the actions resulted from a local government policy, practice, or custom.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits after the official violates an individual’s civil rights. The doctrine only allows lawsuits if an official is found to have violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right, of which a reasonable person would have known. This often means that a plaintiff must show that the officer violated a right that was recognized by a prior court. In considering whether a right was clearly established, courts consider the action that an objectively reasonable officer would take. Courts may also consider what the officer was aware of at the time. In practice, this often means that officers are protected from lawsuits by the courts. Qualified immunity is meant to protect the government and its officials from frivolous lawsuits. However, critics have been calling for an end to qualified immunity, arguing that it bars many injured victims from recovering financial compensation.

An evening police chase last month tragically led to a car accident, resulting in one fatality and injuries. The case raises important questions about how and when the government and police may be held liable when they cause Maryland car accidents.

According to a local news report covering the incident, the crash occurred around 8:15 one evening as a man, driving a vehicle and wanted in a homicide, led police on a chase throughout the city. During the chase, the man crashed the vehicle—a dark-colored Jeep—and ran to a nearby gas station where he stole an idling 2016 Nissan SUV. He left the gas station and took off again, with police following. While the police cars were chasing the Nissan, one of them slammed into a Ford Explorer. The police car then spun out and hit a Hummer stopped at a red light. The drivers of the Ford and Hummer, as well as the Hummers two passengers, were all taken to the hospital. Unfortunately, the driver of the Ford, a 37-year-old woman, died shortly after.

Typically, Maryland residents affected by tragic car accidents are able to bring a civil suit against the responsible driver to recover for the injuries caused, or the wrongful death of a loved one. The case, however, becomes more complicated in situations such as this one, where the at-fault driver is a police officer. Government employees have historically enjoyed sovereign immunity from tort claims such as negligence or wrongful death arising out of car accidents. However, the Maryland Tort Claims Act changed that and now allows accident victims to bring certain claims against the Maryland government or their employees.

It is well known that when someone is injured in a car accident caused by someone else’s negligent driving, Maryland law allows them to sue the responsible driver in a civil lawsuit. These lawsuits, if successful, can result in the plaintiff receiving monetary compensation for lost wages, medical bills, and pain and suffering they experienced as a result of the accident. However, there are certain barriers to when injured victims can and cannot sue. One important barrier is the concept of governmental immunity. If the negligent or responsible driver who caused the injuries works for the government, then they generally cannot be sued for causing Maryland car accidents if they were acting within the scope of their employment.

Recently, a state supreme court considered this scope of employment doctrine in a case highlighting its importance. According to the court’s written opinion, the defendant was a State Trooper who had a vehicle given to him by the state police office. He was allowed to drive this vehicle when he was off duty, but was subject to standard operating procedures and guidelines, including being required to maintain radio contact at all times and respond to emergencies if needed. The defendant had finished work for the day and was driving to his son’s baseball game when he decided to pass a vehicle in front of him. As he switched lanes, he noticed a motorcycle in the lane heading towards him, and so he slowed down and went back to his own lane. However, the oncoming motorcycle had already locked its brakes, swerved side to side, and then rolled over, ejecting both the driver and the passenger, who suffered subsequent injures.

The driver of the motorcycle filed suit against the trooper, alleging negligence in operating his vehicle. The trooper, in response, filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that he was acting within the scope of employment while driving his state vehicle and was thus immune from personal liability. The trial court agreed and granted the motion, but the court of appeals reversed. The case was appealed to the state supreme court.

Maryland car accident claims that are filed against state and local governments can pose additional obstacles. In general, state and local governments are immune from suit, unless immunity is waived. In cases against Maryland cities and their employees, the cities are immune from suit unless the person involved in the accident was carrying out certain duties. Cities and other local governments are normally protected while performing governmental functions, as opposed to proprietary functions. Governmental functions are considered by courts to be functions that are solely for public benefit, do not have an element of private interest, and are sanctioned by the legislature.

When an employee is carrying out a proprietary function of the government, a city is liable for the acts of the employees as long as they are acting within their official capacity. This means that city employees are generally protected as individuals as long as they are acting within the scope of their employment and are not acting with malice or gross negligence. Under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, a claimant generally must submit a claim in writing to the state’s treasurer within one year of the injury. If the treasurer denies the claim, then the claim can be filed in court within three years.

One recent case was dismissed against the city after a city employee hit and killed a pedestrian. The employee was on his way to work at his job at a water treatment plant and was driving his own car. His job rarely required him to travel for work and he was not required to use his car at work. The pedestrian’s surviving family filed a claim against the city, arguing that the city was liable for the pedestrian’s death.

Maryland property owners generally maintain the responsibility to keep their property safe for people whom they invite onto their property. If an individual suffers injuries on an owner’s property, the property owner or occupier may be liable for the damages that the visitor sustained. Under Maryland personal injury law, accident victims who want to hold a property owner responsible for their injuries must be able to establish four main factors:

  • The property owner had a duty to keep their property safe from dangers;
  • The owner failed to abide by that duty;
  • The dangerous condition caused the victim’s injuries; and
  • The victim’s injuries resulted in damages.

In some cases, this also applies to roadside hazards. However, challenges may arise when the negligent party is a governmental entity, such as a city, county, state, or federal agency. Historically, under the theory of sovereign immunity, Maryland government agencies cannot face liability without their consent. However, to address this fundamental unfairness, Maryland lawmakers established the Maryland Tort Claims Act, which waives governmental immunity in specific instances.

To determine whether a Maryland governmental agency or official can face liability, the courts will analyze whether the party was engaging in discretionary or ministerial duties. Discretionary duties occur when a governmental agent or employee chooses between different options. Accident victims who suffer damages because of a governmental agency’s discretionary duty cannot hold the government liable. On the other hand, ministerial duties are those that do not require any judgment calls or independent decision-making. Accident victims can recover damages that they sustained because of a negligent government official’s ministerial decision-making.

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Accidents involving pedestrians are often some of the most serious due to the extent of the injuries involved. Thus, it is essential for a Maryland pedestrian accident victim to locate all potential sources of compensation. Of course, the defendants named in a lawsuit will almost always be the driver that hit the pedestrian. However, there may be other potentially liable parties as well, such as the government entity in charge of designing and maintaining the area where the accident occurred.

Pedestrian accidents often occur in areas with unique and potentially dangerous traffic features. For example, a poorly maintained, improperly marked, or misplaced crosswalk may give pedestrians a false sense of security as they cross the road. This is essentially the situation in a case discussed in a recent appellate opinion.

According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was killed on Halloween night as she was crossing the street at a marked crosswalk. The motorist was traveling well over the posted 45 mile-per-hour speed limit. The crosswalk is marked, and there are signs notifying approaching motorists of the crosswalk. After the accident, the driver fled the scene, but was later arrested and charged with vehicular manslaughter.

The Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA) is a law that allows for Maryland accident victims to bring certain claims against the Maryland government based on the negligence of the government or its employees. Historically, Maryland accident victims were unable to recover compensation for their injuries from the government due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. However, the MTCA changed that, allowing accident victims to pursue claims for compensation provided they follow the procedures outlined in the MTCA.

Claims under the MTCA differ from other Maryland personal injury cases in two significant ways. First, a plaintiff bringing a claim under the MTCA must provide notice to the Treasurer within one year of the injury. This notice must contain the following:

  • The names and addresses of the people involved;

Under state and federal law, government entities are generally provided immunity from personal injury lawsuits. However, Maryland lawmakers passed the Maryland Tort Claims Act (the “Act”), which waives governmental immunity in most circumstances, provided an injury victim follows the strict procedural requirements outlined in the Act. Thus, Maryland car accident victims can typically pursue a claim against a government entity overseeing the area where the accident occurred.

Recently, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a car accident case discussing whether the government could be held liable for the accident victim’s injuries. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was driving a motorcycle northbound on a divided road. As the plaintiff approached an intersection, he noticed a slow-moving SUV approaching from the opposite direction. The SUV attempted to make a left turn in front of the plaintiff, cutting him off and leaving him no time to react. The plaintiff crashed into the passenger side of the SUV, and was seriously injured as a result.

The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against the city where the accident occurred, claiming that the city negligently placed trees along the center median, which obstructed motorists’ views. The city argued it was not liable because it was not aware of the hazard the trees presented. In its defense, the city presented the court with 13 accident reports from accidents occurring at the same intersection. The city claimed that nowhere in the reports did any of the parties involved claim that the trees obstructed their vision.

While governments may be entitled to immunity in some car accidents that are based on a negligent-design theory, the government can still be held liable for failing to safely maintain a road or highway. However, the distinction between design and maintenance is not always clear-cut. For example, consider the following:

  • A turn with visibility obstructed by large trees or rocks;
  • An intersection with misleading or improperly marked signage;
  • Malfunctioning traffic lights;
  • Dangerous potholes or unmarked hazards; and
  • Landscaping that obscures motorists’ vision of an intersection or oncoming traffic

A Maryland car accident victim who is injured in an accident that was caused by any of the above scenarios may be able to pursue a claim for compensation against the government agency responsible for maintaining the road. A recent state appellate decision discusses one plaintiff’s case against a local government agency based on the road’s dangerous condition.

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Chances are, anyone who has spent significant time driving in Maryland or Virginia has come across a section of road or an intersection that seemed unsafe. It may be that a stop sign or stop light was not placed at an intersection that needed it, or a blind corner was too tight to safely navigate without encroaching into oncoming traffic. Regardless, there are hundreds of Maryland and Virginia car accidents that are caused by unsafe roads.

Typically, the local government is responsible for the design and maintenance of roads. Thus, any claim arising from an accident that was due to an unsafe road would necessarily be brought against the local government agency overseeing that particular portion of the highway. However, in both Maryland and Virginia, the states’ immunity laws act to preclude many of these lawsuits.

Government immunity has been around in some form since the birth of the country, and it provides state and federal governments with immunity from lawsuits that are the result of the government carrying out its official duties. The question in these cases often comes down to whether the government’s actions were discretionary in nature. If so, immunity will typically attach, preventing an injury victims’ claim from proceeding. Courts have held that the duty to design roads and place traffic-control devices is a discretionary government function that is entitled to immunity. However, claims against a government agency that allege a failure to keep a road clean and maintain the road safely have been allowed to proceed.

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