In Maryland, the Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act) requires employers to pay benefits to employees that suffer an accidental injury at work. The benefits are issued to injured employees regardless of whether the employer was at fault for the employee’s injury. The benefits provided through the Act generally bar subsequent civil claims against employers through a rule known as the exclusivity rule. A recent case shows how a claim may even be barred against one entity after receiving workers’ compensation benefits from a separate entity.

In that case, the plaintiff suffered an injury while he was working as a foreman removing trees. He was working along with five employees at a job at a client’s house, and at one point, a vehicle known as a bucket truck rolled backward and pinned the plaintiff between it and a dump truck. As other employees apparently attempted to remove the truck, the truck was set in motion, causing the plaintiff further injury. The plaintiff suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident and was permanently disabled.

The plaintiff received workers’ compensation benefits from the insurance carrier for Mulch-N-More, a company that provided mulching services. The plaintiff then filed a complaint in court, alleging that another entity, Mike’s Professional Tree Service (MPTS), was negligent. MPTS was a separate, affiliated entity owned by the same person. MPTS claimed that the plaintiff could not file suit against MPTS because he had already received workers’ compensation benefits, and his claim was barred under the Act.

Maryland’s Workers’ Compensation Act (the Act), first enacted in 1914, generally requires employers to pay workers’ compensation benefits to employees who suffer an accidental injury during the course of their employment, regardless of whether the employer was at fault. The Act is designed to ensure employees the right to quick compensation for their workplace injuries, while also taking away their rights to sue their employers for negligence. This means that a claimant can often not seek damages in a subsequent civil suit, though there are exceptions. In a recent opinion, a state court considered whether an employee could recover from a co-employee after settling her workers’ compensation claim.

The plaintiff was an employee at a human services agency. He was attacked by one of the company’s clients and filed a workers’ compensation claim for his injuries. The parties settled the claim. The plaintiff then filed suit in district court against her supervisor on a theory of gross negligence. The supervisor argued that he was protected under the settlement. The state’s supreme court explained that the state’s law allowed injured employees who had received workers’ compensation benefits to file claims against co-employees in the case of gross negligence. Thus the claim generally would have been permitted. However, the court agreed with the supervisor, finding that the language in the terms of the settlement extinguished the plaintiff’s gross negligence claim. The court found that the language in the settlement agreement was broad and released all employees of the employer for all liability. Thus, the court ruled against the employee and dismissed the case.

Filing Suit After a Maryland Workers’ Compensation Act Claim

Under Maryland law, an insurance policy is governed by general contract principles and interpretation. In Maryland insurance disputes, courts are supposed to interpret the contract based on the parties’ intentions when the contract was drafted, and the contract must be considered a whole. In addition, the insurer has the burden to prove an exclusion from coverage.

Insurers are bound by the actions and representations of their agents. If an agent is an actual agent of an insurer, the agent is subject to the insurer’s right of control, the agent has a duty to act for the insurer’s benefit, and the agent holds the power to alter the legal relations of the insurer. In some cases, insurers can also be bound under the apparent-agency theory. In this situation, the insured must show that the insurer led him to believe that the apparent agent was an actual agent of the insurer, the belief was reasonable, and the insured relied upon the apparent agency.

In a recent case, one court considered whether a couple could succeed on a theory of apparent agency after they continued to make payments on their expired policy to who they believed was an agent of the insured. In that case, the insured couple purchased an insurance policy for a period of one year. The couple met with an insurance agent to purchase the policy and paid the policy premium to the agent. Such a payment was permitted as it fell under an “agency bill policy.” The couple continued to make payments on the policy to the agent rather than to the insurer directly. After the first year of the policy, the policy was eligible for renewal as a “direct bill policy,” which meant that the couple was supposed to make payments directly to the insurer to renew and continue coverage under the policy. The couple claimed it did not receive notice reflecting the cancellation and notice of the new policy. The couple continued to make payments directly to the insurance agent after the expiration of the initial one-year period, and the insurer never received the payments to renew and continue the policy.

In Maryland injury cases based on a claim of strict liability, a defendant may claim that the plaintiff was also at fault for their injuries, raising the issue of contributory negligence. Maryland is among a small minority of states that follow the doctrine of contributory negligence, meaning that a plaintiff cannot recover if he is found to be even partially at fault.

Under Maryland law, contributory negligence of the consumer is not a defense in strict liability cases if the consumer’s negligence involves solely a failure to discover the product’s defect or to protect themselves from the possibility of such a defect. However, if the consumer’s contributory negligence concerns voluntarily and unreasonably confronting a known danger, that is a defense to strict liability.

Many other states apply the doctrine of comparative negligence, generally meaning that a plaintiff’s damages are reduced by his proportion of fault. In that case, a plaintiff could have his damages reduced by his portion of fault, even if a strict liability case. In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court upheld such an award. In that case, the plaintiff was seriously injured in a crash after the front brake on his motorcycle failed. He sued Suzuki, the manufacturer and designer of the motorcycle, claiming that his injuries were caused by a design defect in the front master brake cylinder. Suzuki had issued a recall warning about a safety defect in the front brake master cylinder, and reportedly had known about the issue since well before the plaintiff’s accident. However, the plaintiff failed to replace the brake fluid every two years, and he had not done so for eight years.

There are instances where a Maryland injury victim has a condition that may increase the severity of damages after an accident. The law frequently refers to these individuals as “eggshell plaintiffs.” The colloquial term “eggshell plaintiff” derives from comparing a person with a typical skull to one with a fragile skull. The theory being that if a defendant causes injuries to a plaintiff with an “eggshell” skull, the defendant would still be liable, even though the plaintiff’s skull was especially vulnerable, compared to that of the average population. In essence, these individuals possess an underlying or complicating health condition that makes a recovery from an accident more difficult.

In many cases, these plaintiffs suffer more significant injuries and damages. However, under Maryland law, a defendant must take the plaintiff or injury victim as they find them. The at-fault party is liable for whatever harm they cause, regardless of what the plaintiff suffered from before the act. Although the law requires defendants to “take plaintiffs as they are,” insurance companies continue to deny claims, often arguing that the accident victim’s injuries are related to a pre-existing condition and not the triggering event. Despite insurance companies’ reluctance to adopt this idea, this principle applies to victims with pre-existing conditions, as well.

For example, a recent national news report described an incident where a teen died after COVID-19 complicated his car accident recovery. According to reports, the 17-year-old suffered multiple fractures and other injuries in a car accident. However, medical reports indicate that the teenager also tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus. The virus left the teenager with weakness in his lungs, which prevented him from fully recovering from the car accident. Although details of the crash are still under investigation, doctors indicated that the teenager succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the car accident.

If an individual is injured at a public park in Maryland, the individual’s negligence claim may be barred under governmental immunity. In state parks (owned and operated by the State of Maryland), the state is often protected under sovereign immunity. In county and city parks (owned and operated by a country or a municipality), local governments may similarly be protected under governmental immunity. Yet, the governmental immunity that protects cities and counties is more limited than the state’s sovereign immunity. In cases involving local governments, they are only immune from a civil suit if the conduct at issue is categorized as “governmental.” If the case is based on activity by a local government, it is only immune if the conduct at issue is “private,” “corporate,” or “proprietary.”

In general, Maryland courts have found that governmental activities are solely for the public’s benefit, sanctioned by the legislature, and do not involve private interest. Courts have also found that the difference between governmental activities and proprietary activities are activities that are performed for the common good as opposed to activities that are carried out for the benefit or profit of a corporation. In practice, the line between governmental and proprietary activities is not always clear cut, and often depends on the factual circumstances of the individual case.

In a recent state appellate case, the court considered whether the county was immune from suit for an allegedly dangerous condition on a park trail. In that case, there was a trail located within a park that was owned and operated by the county. There had previously been a wooden lodge pole fence in the park that ran across one-half of the trail loops, which cyclists had to maneuver around. The plaintiff had ridden his bike on the trail several times before his accident and knew that the fence was there.

Recently, the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided a case concerning non-party negligence in a Maryland medical malpractice case. Maryland state law allows those injured by a doctor or other health care professional’s negligence to file a medical malpractice suit against the negligent party to recover for their injuries. Sometimes, when defending against that claim, the defendant will attempt to argue that they were not negligent, but that someone else—a non-party in the case—was negligent, and they caused the injuries.

The recent case provides such an example. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was found to have a renal tumor in his kidney and an adjacent enlarged lymph node. His urologist removed the cancerous kidney, but did not remove the lymph node because it was thought that it could not be removed safely. The plaintiff’s oncologist also did not think the lymph node could be removed, even though it was likely cancerous. The oncologist treated the plaintiff with a chemotherapy drug instead for several years, and the lymph node shrunk (confirming it was cancerous). During this treatment, a radiologist interpreted various scans of the plaintiff’s lymph node, but never noted any issue of enlargement. However, the original radiologist and another radiologist did note that the scans of the lymph node were not always performed with the best technology, meaning sometimes they were difficult to interpret.

Tragically, it turns out that the lymph node—still cancerous—had increased in size over the years. At this point, it was definitely too big to remove, and the plaintiff underwent cancer treatment. The plaintiff filed suit against the radiologists, alleging that they failed to alert his oncologist of the lymph node’s growth. Had they done so, the plaintiff argues, the oncologist could have removed it safely before it grew too large.

The state-created danger theory imposes liability on a governmental entity for acts committed by a private actor. It generally applies in situations where the state increases the risk of harm to an individual through the state’s affirmative acts. Although courts have considered the doctrine in Maryland accident cases, Maryland had not adopted the state-created danger theory as a basis for recovery for violations under the state’s constitution. In general, under Maryland law, a private party does not have a duty to control a third party’s conduct to prevent harm to another person. However, a private party may have a duty when there is a special relationship between the private party and the third party or between the private party and the injured person. Whether a special relationship exists is determined on a case-by-case basis.

A federal appeals court recently considered the doctrine in a case involving three family members who died in a fire after the fire department failed to go look for them. According to the court’s opinion, the woman was in her apartment with her son and her stepfather and called 911 when they saw their apartment building was on fire. An operator from the fire department told her to stay inside the apartment and that help was on the way. The firefighters drove to the wrong location, and when they did arrive at the scene, they were never told that the family was inside, and no one searched for them. The three family members remained inside and died from smoke inhalation. No one looked for them until days later, when the firefighters found their bodies inside the apartment.

The estates of three family members sued the city and two fire department employees. The estates claimed that the state-created danger doctrine applied because the dispatcher told them to close themselves in their room, assured them that firefighters were on their way, and then failed to communicate the family’s presence or location to the firefighters. The court explained that the doctrine requires that there be, 1.) a foreseeable and fairly direct harm, 2.) an action that shocks the conscience, 3.) a relationship with the state that makes the plaintiff a foreseeable victim, and 4.) an affirmative use of state authority that created a danger or made others more vulnerable. The court held that the doctrine was inapplicable because there was it was not an affirmative act and because the conduct did not “shock the conscience.” It held that the dispatcher did not act affirmatively because the dispatcher only failed to communicate the family’s location to the firefighters, and the operator’s failure to communicate the family’s location was not sufficient to “shock the conscience,” in part, because it was not an intentional act.

In Maryland personal injury lawsuits, a plaintiff typically has to prove causation—that the defendant’s action (or failure to act) caused the accident and the plaintiff’s injuries. While this sounds straightforward, it can be incredibly complicated, especially as many courts consider two different types of causation necessary to win a case: direct and proximate causation. Direct causation is easier to understand—did the defendant’s action lead to the accident, such that but for the defendant’s action, the accident would not have happened? However, direct causation is not enough. Sometimes a defendant does something that directly leads to the accident, but the connection between the two is so disconnected that it is unfair to hold the defendant accountable.

For example, suppose that someone is hit by a car while riding their bike. They are uninjured, but their bike is totaled. Because of this, they have to ride the bus to work, and they slip and fall while exiting the bus hurting themselves. They might want to file a personal injury lawsuit against the driver of the car who originally hit them while they were on their bike, because absent that accident, they would not have been on the bus and then would not have been injured. However, in this case, the driver’s actions would not be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s slip and fall injuries—the events are too separate from each other to hold the motorist responsible.

Recently, a state appellate court considered a slightly harder case on proximate causation. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff bought a cup of hot tea from Starbucks. When the drink was ready, she retrieved it from the store’s pick-up counter. The tea had a lid on it and was “double cupped”—the cup with the tea was placed inside a second empty cup. However, the plaintiff alleges that the cup was very hot, and that there wasn’t a sleeve around the outer cup. When she sat down, she removed the lid on her drink. While seated, she attempted to bend forward and take a sip from the open cup in front of her. While doing so, she tried to push the chair a bit, but it moved more than anticipated and lost her balance, grabbing onto the table and causing the drink to spill onto her thighs, burning her.

When someone is injured in a Maryland accident and decides to file a personal injury lawsuit, their case may end up going to trial. Many people imagine trials look like how they appear on television—two lawyers arguing in front of a judge, questioning witnesses, and making a passionate appeal to the jury. While this does happen, a lot of the work involved in a trial actually happens behind the scenes, in deciding what evidence is and is not admissible. This is especially important when it comes to Maryland medical malpractice cases, which typically involve expert witness testimony. Recently, the Court of Appeals of Maryland issued an important opinion that clarified when expert testimony based on new or novel scientific principles is admissible.

In the 1970s, the court adopted what is referred to as the “general acceptance” test, which basically stated that courts should decide the admissibility of evidence by looking to see if there is general acceptance within the relevant scientific community. Not every member of the scientific community has to agree with it under this test, but it should be generally accepted by a fair proportion. However, in the 1990s, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Maryland adopted Maryland Rule 5-702, modeled after the Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 702, which laid out the elements of admissible expert testimony. This new rule did not, however, overrule the court’s previous decision that adopted the general acceptance test, leaving many confused about how the two were related.

Finally, the Court of Appeals addressed the confusion in a medical malpractice case. The plaintiff in the case was trying to submit expert testimony on the connection between lead poisoning and ADHD, and disputes arose over the admissibility of the evidence. In the court’s written opinion, it clarified that the general acceptance rule was no longer the proper test when deciding whether or not the evidence was admissible. Instead, ten factors from the Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals were to be weighed by trial courts.

Contact Information