Articles Posted in Personal Injury Case Law

Maryland regulates insurance in the state for all Maryland drivers. When a Maryland car accident occurs, compensation is often issued by the insurance companies through the insureds’ insurance policies. If a wrongdoer is not insured, or is underinsured, uninsured motorist coverage normally kicks in. Uninsured motorist coverage covers damages to a victim that are less than the amount of coverage provided under the statute.

Maryland’s uninsured motorist statute was enacted in 1972. The statute was meant to provide protection for individuals injured by uninsured motorists and to allow more injured victims to recover compensation. In 1975, the State made uninsured motorist coverage mandatory for all motor vehicle liability insurers. The term uninsured also now encompasses underinsured vehicles. There is a minimum coverage required by the statute. An insured individual can also buy additional uninsured motorist coverage.

To file an uninsured motorist coverage claim in Maryland, an insured must show proof of being insured, that he is entitled to recover from an uninsured motor vehicle’s owner or operator, that he sustained injuries or property damages, and that the injuries resulted from the uninsured driver’s use, ownership, or maintenance of the motor vehicle.

Although people generally must act reasonably so as not to harm others, you may wonder if that extends to protecting others from harm. In the context of a Maryland negligence claim, a plaintiff bears the burden of proving the claim, which includes proving that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury. Maryland courts have characterized the concept of duty as “an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Whether a duty exists depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the case.

Courts consider, among other things, whether the harm was foreseeable to the plaintiff, and the relationship between the defendant’s conduct and the injury. However, people do not have a general duty to the public at large to protect it against the actions of others. This was illustrated in a recent appellate case, in which the plaintiff claimed that a driver who had pulled over on the side of the road to help another stranded driver should have put out warnings to alert the plaintiff to the presence of the vehicles.

In that case, a pickup truck driver with an attached trailer experienced an electrical failure and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. It was nighttime and the lights on the truck were not on due to the electrical failure. As another driver was passing by, he saw the truck and trailer and pulled over to help. A third vehicle was passing by, and veered off the highway and crashed into the trailer. The plaintiff was a passenger in the third vehicle. He sued the drivers, and a trial court dismissed the case.

Most people know that Maryland law allows those injured in car accidents to bring a civil negligence suit against the responsible party. What is less commonly known, however, is that the law also provides a variety of “affirmative defenses” that a defendant can use to defend themselves. Affirmative defenses, if proven, can shield a defendant from civil liability even if they would otherwise be held responsible for the accident. Understanding these defenses is important, as defendants may raise one or more of them in any civil negligence suit arising from Maryland car accidents.

One important affirmative defense is the “act of God defense.” To claim this, the defendant must prove that the accident was caused by an act of God, rather than the defendant. What exactly constitutes an act of God? Typically, the term is limited to unstoppable and unexpected physical and/or natural forces, such as lightning, earthquakes, meteors, sudden death or illness, or other such events. The key is that the cause of the accident was not an act of the defendant, but an act of God, or the universe.

A state appellate court recently issued an opinion considering the act of God defense in a car accident case. According to the court’s written opinion, the defendant driver was a 16-year-old girl, turning into Costco one afternoon. As she turned right into the parking lot, she, unfortunately, hit the plaintiff, who was walking his dog and crossing the parking lot entrance. The plaintiff was transported to the hospital, and subsequently had serious injuries, making him unable to work.

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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Any Maryland negligence claim requires proving that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, that the defendant breached that duty, that the plaintiff suffered an injury or loss, and that the damages proximately resulted from the defendant’s breach of the duty. The legal relationship between the breach of duty and the injury is known as proximate cause. Under Maryland law, to establish proximate cause, the plaintiff must show that the negligence was both the cause in fact of the injury and a legally cognizable cause.

Cause in fact refers only to whether a defendant’s actions actually caused an injury. Whether there is a legally cognizable cause considers whether the injury was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s negligent actions. The issue becomes whether the injury to the plaintiff was within the general field of danger that the defendant should have expected or anticipated. Legal cause often requires a consideration of policy considerations and whether a defendant should be held liable under the circumstances. Generally, proximate cause must be decided by a jury (or a judge if the judge is the trier of fact), unless there is only one possible inference that can be drawn based on the facts of the case, or unless “reasoning minds cannot differ.”

Foreseeability is also a consideration in determining whether a duty exists in personal injury cases. In a 1985 case that is still cited today, one Maryland judge explained that “courts have given further effect to the social policy of limitation of liability for remote consequences by narrowing the concept of duty to embrace only those persons or classes of persons to whom harm of some type might reasonably have been foreseen as a result of the particular tortious conduct.”

In some cases, a presumption of negligence can work in a party’s favor. However, presumptions can also work against a party. For example, in rear-end collisions, in many states, there is a presumption that the rear driver was negligent. Maryland courts have found that in Maryland rear-end collision cases, if a vehicle is lawfully stopped while waiting for traffic to clear and that vehicle is rear-ended by another car, the operator of the car that rear-ended the stopped vehicle is presumed to have been negligent. However, the presumption is rebuttable, and the burden of persuasion remains with the plaintiff. Thus, a plaintiff still has the ultimate responsibility to prove that the defendant was negligent, which includes establishing all the elements of negligence.

In addition, Maryland courts have found that in the case of a rear-end collision that occurs after the first vehicle stops, there is no presumption that the rear driver was negligent, unless the rear driver had the opportunity to stop after the need to stop became apparent. Under Maryland Code section 21–310(a), a driver cannot follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, considering traffic, the speed of the other car, and the conditions on the road.

Court Directs Verdict Against Rear-End Driver Despite Jury’s Verdict

Before a document can be admitted in evidence in a Maryland injury case, the court must determine if the document is genuine and true. Courts refer to this as authentication. Maryland Rule 5-901 provides that authentication is satisfied “by evidence sufficient to support a finding that the matter in question is what its proponent claims.” For example, a witness can testify that another person signed a contract in order to prove the authenticity of a signature on a document. A witness might also be able to testify as to the authenticity of a signature through testimony that establishes that the witness is familiar with the person’s signature.

Even if a document is properly authenticated, documents must still be admissible under hearsay rules. Maryland Rule 5-803(b)(6) concerns the admission of business records under Maryland law. Under the rule, a business record can be admitted if it is proven the record was made “at or near the time of the act, event, or condition, or the rendition of the diagnosis,” was made by a person with knowledge or from information given by a person with knowledge, that the business regularly made and maintained such a record, and that the record was made and maintained in the course of the regular course of business. This rule applies to businesses and associations, whether or not they are for-profit or not-for-profit. A recent case considered whether a medical record was properly admitted in a personal injury case.

In that case, the plaintiff was a passenger in a car when the car was involved in an accident with another vehicle. The plaintiff sued the drivers of both cars for injuries she claimed were caused by the crash. The case went to trial, and the jury found in the plaintiff’s favor on liability but awarded her no damages, so the plaintiff appealed. She claimed that her prior medical records should not have been admitted into evidence because they were not authenticated.

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) reports that thousands of people are hurt or killed in Maryland car accidents every year. Crash report statistics have shown there has been a rise in Maryland car accidents every year since 2012. These incidents range from minor to severe, and Maryland car accident victims often suffer significant financial repercussions as a result of these accidents. Many accident victims do not realize that their insurance companies may not cover the extent of damages that they sustained. In these situations, injury victims may need to file a dispute with their insurance company to recover fully for their losses. In some cases, a Maryland personal injury lawsuit against the at-fault party may be necessary.

Injury victims are often surprised to discover that their insurance company is taking an adversarial role when the policyholder attempts to collect on a claim. Many times, insurance companies will go to great lengths to dispute a claim, deny coverage, and escape making a payment.

For example, recently, a state appellate court issued a ruling in a lawsuit stemming from a claim dispute between a policyholder and her insurance company. In that case, a woman suffered injuries while she was exercising at a mobile gym. The woman filed and settled a negligence lawsuit against the gym’s owner and the personal trainer. The gym was run out of the back of a pickup truck, so she filed a car insurance claim with her provider to recover her remaining damages. Her insurance company disputed coverage, arguing that her uninsured/underinsured coverage did not extend to motor vehicles such as a mobile gym. The insurance company cited specific provisions in her policy that limited the insurance company’s obligation to pay a claim. Ultimately, the appellate court ruled in the insurance company’s favor finding that the coverage did not extend to motor vehicles that are “located for use as a premises,” such as a mobile gym.

When accidents happen and people are injured, many individuals rely on their insurance policies to help them cover the costs. For instance, homeowner’s insurance policies can protect individuals if something that they own hurts someone else or damages their property. Maryland law allows the injured party to sue the at-fault party in court to recover monetary compensation, and insurance can help the at-fault party cover all or part of the award. However, some insurance companies may try to escape liability for certain types of accidents, relying on vague or ambiguous language in the policy’s contract.

Take a recent state appellate case, for example. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff brought suit when she was injured by the defendant’s Ford truck. The truck had been parked on an incline on the driveway when the plaintiff, examining it, pulled the emergency brake. The truck subsequently took off and went down the driveway, rolling over the plaintiff’s ankles and causing her multiple injuries, including several fractures and a knee effusion. The plaintiff then filed suit against the defendant, alleging negligence.

Typically, in situations like this, a defendant with homeowner’s insurance would receive assistance from their insurance company. However, the defendant’s insurer filed a complaint for a declaratory judgment to determine whether or not it had to cover the incident. The insurance company argued that they did not provide coverage for claims arising out of the “use” of a motor vehicle, and thus were not obliged to cover the defendant here. Ultimately, the question came down to what the ambiguous term “use of a motor vehicle” meant, since there was no further definition in the policy contract.

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