Articles Posted in Personal Injury Case Law

Uninsured and underinsured motorist protection provides coverage for insured drivers involved in a crash with uninsured or underinsured drivers. Although uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage is required in Maryland motor vehicle policies, stacking uninsured motorist coverage is optional. Opting for stacked uninsured motorist coverage can benefit Maryland car accidents victims in the event of a crash, because stacking coverage can provide additional coverage beyond an insurance policy’s general policy limits.

Stacked uninsured motorist coverage is expansive and typically provides coverage whenever and wherever the insured is injured by an uninsured motorist. This means that an insured can stack or aggregate uninsured motorist coverage if the insured has multiple insurance policies. Non-stacked uninsured motorist coverage provides less protection and does not apply whenever and wherever the insured is injured. This means that it normally cannot be stacked or aggregated. Maryland’s Private Passenger Motor Vehicle Liability Insurance – Enhanced Underinsured Motorist Coverage law requires enhanced coverage to be offered under policies issued as of July 1, 2018. The law allows individuals covered on such policies to stack their uninsured motorist coverage.

A recent case from a state appeals court highlights the differences between stacked and non-stacked policies. In that case, the court found two individuals were not entitled to non-stacked uninsured motorist benefits where they had accepted stacked uninsured motorist benefits their policies with other insurers. Two individuals were injured when one of them was driving and was hit by another car that was driven by an uninsured motorist. The car was insured by a commercial auto policy in another individual’s name and provided non-stacked uninsured motorist coverage with a policy limit of $300,000. The two settled under the policy for $300,000. They also had three of their own insurance policies that provided uninsured motorist coverage. In addition, the parties settled under two of the other policies, which had provided stacked uninsured motorist coverage. The third policy insurer refused to pay because they had chosen non-stacked coverage.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland recently decided a Maryland car accident case in which the court considered whether the state’s cap on non-economic damages was unconstitutional. In Maryland, there is a cap on non-economic damages in personal injury and wrongful death claims. In a personal injury claim, non-economic damages include damages for “pain, suffering inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, loss of consortium, or other nonpecuniary injury.”

In a wrongful death claim, non-economic damages include damages for “mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, loss of society, companionship, comfort, protection, care, marital care, parental care, filial care, attention, advice, counsel, training, guidance, or education,” or other noneconomic damaged authorized under the statute. If a jury awards party an amount that exceeds the non-economic damages cap, the court will reduce the amount to the maximum allowed. A jury also cannot be informed of the cap.

In the case before the appeals court, the plaintiff was seriously injured in a car accident in 2017. She was driving near her home in Lanham, Maryland, when a car crossed over the median and hit her car. The other driver was driving a commercial vehicle for his employer and was intoxicated at the time of the crash. His employer knew that he had charges for driving while intoxicated prior to hiring him. The plaintiff’s injuries included losing almost all use of her left arm or hand. She had to undergo almost continuous medical care since the accident occurred, in addition to psychological treatment.

When someone is injured in a Maryland car accident due to another driver’s negligence, state law allows them to sue the responsible driver in a personal injury suit. However, what is less well known is that someone who is injured in a single-vehicle Maryland car accident may still be able to obtain compensation for their injuries. For example, in some situations, dangerous and hazardous conditions on the roads may lead to accidents, and injured victims may be able to sue their city government, who is responsible for maintaining roads and ensuring their safety.

For example, take a recent state appellate court decision. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was driving in August of 2016, when she suddenly hit an uncovered manhole. This caused an accident, and the plaintiff was seriously injured as a result. She decided to file a personal injury suit against the city, alleging that the manhole was a public nuisance and presenting evidence in the form of photographs. The photographs showed that the manhole sat several inches below the surface of the street and that there were cracks in the surrounding pavement. According to her expert witness, this meant that there was an increased risk of the cover being dislodged. The jury in the case sided with the plaintiff and found the city to be liable, and the city appealed.

On appeal, the court reversed the jury verdict and directed a verdict for the defendant city. The court found that the plaintiff did not establish the elements required to hold a city liable for a public nuisance, because she had to show that the deteriorated condition of the manhole existed on the day of the accident or that the city had notice of the condition before the accident. Because the photographs she submitted into evidence were taken over a year after the accident occurred, the court found that she had failed to establish these elements, and a jury could not find the city liable. As such, the verdict was reversed, and the plaintiff’s suit ended.

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

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