Articles Posted in Governmental Liability

Historically, governments have enjoyed immunity from lawsuits brought by citizens seeking compensation for injuries that were due to the negligence of a government agency or employee. However, over the years, states have passed a variety of laws permitting victims to pursue a claim of compensation against various government entities. These laws vary by state but are generally known as “Tort Claims Acts.”

Law LibraryWhile the Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA) does allow for victims to obtain compensation for their injuries from government entities in some situations, there are additional procedural requirements that must be followed. Most commonly, potential plaintiffs are required to provide notice of their injury to the state treasurer within one year of the occurrence.

The way in which these requirements are phrased makes them jurisdictional, meaning that a court often has little to no discretion in approving a non-compliant plaintiff’s case. A party’s failure to provide this notice will likely result in their case being dismissed and their losing the ability to recover compensation for their injuries. A recent case illustrates just how strictly these requirements are taken.

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When someone is injured in a Maryland slip-and-fall accident occurring on government property, or any other accident involving a government defendant, the accident victim may be entitled to monetary compensation for their injuries. However, when naming a government employee or agency as a defendant, the plaintiff must take additional steps to comply with the relevant laws governing these claims.

Crack in PavemenrIn Maryland, an accident victim naming a government actor as a defendant must provide notice to the Maryland State Treasurer of the accident. This notice must include the names of the people involved, a description of the accident, and the location and date of the accident, as well as other pertinent information. Accident victims have one year from the date of the accident to provide this notice. Otherwise, a court is likely to determine that the case is time-barred.

The notice requirement allows for the government agency to investigate the claim. If a plaintiff’s notice is insufficient, a court may reject the plaintiff’s claim. A recent case illustrates an example of insufficient notice provided by a plaintiff following a slip-and-fall accident.

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As a general rule, state actors, including employees and state-run agencies, are entitled to official government immunity when it comes to personal injury lawsuits. However, each state is free to enact certain exceptions for when an accident victim is able to pursue a claim for compensation against a state actor. Thus, all states have a tort claims act, or something similar, in which the waiver of official government immunity is discussed.

PrisonMaryland’s Tort Claims Act (MTCA) is different in that it broadly waives immunity for cases involving damages totaling less than $200,000. Thus, in Maryland, rather than immunity completely barring an accident victim from recovering damages for their injuries, the Tort Claims Act merely limits their recovery. However, immunity is not waived when the government actor’s actions are determined to be grossly negligent. A recent case discusses how this can play out in a Maryland wrongful death lawsuit against a government official.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiffs were the parents of a man who was killed while an inmate in a Maryland prison. According to the court’s recitation of the facts, the man was killed by another inmate. The case proceeded to trial against several inmates as well as the State of Maryland. At the conclusion of the case, the jury found that several corrections officers were “negligent,” and one correctional officer in particular who was tasked with supervising the inmates had acted grossly negligently.

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Recently, a state court issued a written opinion in a personal injury case involving a young man who was seriously injured while hiking in a city-owned park after hours. The case required the court to determine if the city was entitled to government immunity regarding the plaintiff’s claim that the city should have installed a retaining wall near the trail’s edge. Ultimately, the court concluded that the city was entitled to immunity because the plaintiff’s allegations involved the design of the trail, which was covered under the state’s official immunity.

Mountain TopThe case is important for Maryland premises liability plaintiffs because Maryland courts apply similar laws in cases against local governments.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff and several friends snuck into a city-owned park after dark to go “ghost hunting.” While the plaintiff was making his way down a steep embankment to the trail below, he lost his footing, fell, and rolled down the hill. When the plaintiff reached the trail, he was traveling with so much momentum that he slid across the trail and over the ledge. The plaintiff fell about 10 feet before landing on the ground and then slamming into a tree.

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Maryland has a diverse and unique landscape, providing ample opportunity for Marylanders to get outside and engage in the hobbies they enjoy. Whether it’s crabbing on the Chesapeake, fossil hunting in Calvert Cliffs, mountain biking, rock climbing, or kayaking, there is always something to do in Maryland.

Mountain BikingEach of these activities, however, presents some level of risk that something goes wrong. And while the individual engaging in the activity certainly bears some responsibility to make sure that they are being safe, landowners that allow for people to use their land may also have a duty in certain situations, as Maryland premises liability law provides. Maryland’s recreational use statute governs when a landowner has a duty – and thus can be held liable for a violation of that duty – to those whom the landowner allows to use their land.

Maryland Code section 5-1104 explains that, in general, “an owner of land who either directly or indirectly invites or permits without charge persons to use the property for any recreational or educational purpose or to cut firewood for personal use does not . . . extend any assurance that the premises are safe.” Nor does the landowner “assume responsibility for or incur liability as a result of any injury to the person.”

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in Nevada issued an opinion in a personal injury case involving a student who was injured while playing floor hockey in gym class. The case presents important issues involving governmental immunity that may come into play in similar Maryland personal injury cases.

Field HockeyThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a student at the defendant middle school. A few years prior to the plaintiff’s injury, the school board approved the addition of floor hockey to the gym curriculum. As was the case with all sports played in gym class, participation was required.

During a game of floor hockey, the plaintiff was accidentally struck in the eye by another student’s stick. This resulted in the plaintiff needing subsequent eye surgery, as well as several follow-up visits. The plaintiff filed a personal injury case against the school.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in California issued a written opinion in a premises liability case in which the plaintiff was injured by a falling tree branch while visiting a public marine park. The court was tasked with determining whether the plaintiff’s claim was barred by the trail immunity, which confers immunity to state and local governments when someone is injured while using a public trail. Ultimately, the court concluded that since the plaintiff’s injury was caused by the falling tree branch, rather than the trail itself, immunity did not attach, and the plaintiff was permitted to continue forward with her lawsuit.

Live Oak TreeThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff and a friend were visiting Mission Bay Park, which is the largest marine park in the United States. The two were walking on or near a path when a branch from a eucalyptus tree fell, injuring the plaintiff. She filed a premises liability lawsuit against the government entity in charge of maintaining the park, claiming that the tree was negligently maintained.

The government claimed it was immune from liability under trail immunity. However, the court explained that the injury was not caused by a defect or dangerous condition of the trail itself, but instead by the negligently maintained tree. Thus, trail immunity did not apply.

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When a party files a personal injury case against a defendant, the defendant has the opportunity to argue one or more defenses in hopes of escaping liability. In some cases, the ultimate determination comes down to which witness is more believable. However, in other cases, the facts are not necessarily contested, and the parties argue whether a legal defense applies.

FiremenOne common defense in Maryland personal injury cases is “assumption of the risk.” The doctrine of assumption of the risk stands for the proposition that a person cannot seek to hold another party liable for injuries they sustained while engaging in an activity that they knew was risky. A recent case brought by a firefighter illustrates this principle.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a firefighter who was called to assist in the efforts to put out a wildfire that had gotten out of control. The firefighters set up a headquarters inside the center of an oval racetrack and set up camp outside the track. However, by the time the plaintiff arrived, all of the camp spots had been taken. She then sought permission to camp inside the track. She was given permission and spent the first night there without a problem.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in Georgia issued a written opinion in a wrongful death case brought by the parents of a boy who died while in the defendant teacher’s classroom. In the case, Barnett v. Atlanta Independent School System, the court held that a teacher’s decision on how to supervise and control students is a discretionary action that is entitled to government immunity. As a result of the ruling, the boy’s parents will not be able to seek compensation for the loss of their son.

ClassroomA Student Falls While the Teacher Is Out of the Classroom

Antoine Williams was a seventh-grade student in the defendant’s American Literature class. One afternoon, Williams’ teacher stepped out of the room for a period of about 30 minutes. Before she left, she asked a neighboring teacher to “listen in” on her class to make sure the students were okay. During that time, Williams and another boy were horse-playing when Williams fell to the ground, fracturing his collarbone. When Williams’ teacher returned, Williams was lying on the ground unconscious. The teacher called 911, and Williams was taken to the hospital. Sadly, Williams died from a loss of blood caused by the fractured collarbone.

The school’s principal called the teacher into his office to discuss what had occurred. During the initial discussion, the teacher lied, claiming that she was in the classroom at the time of Williams’ fall. The principal determined this was not the case and confronted the teacher about her misrepresentation. She then offered a series of other reasons as to why she was not present. During a pre-trial deposition, the teacher changed her story yet again, this time claiming that she was using the restroom. It was verified, however, that she did ask the neighboring teacher to listen in on her class.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in West Virginia issued a written opinion in a case brought by the surviving family members of a woman who was killed in a car accident. In the case, Department of Transportation v. King, the court held that the DMV was entitled to governmental immunity, reversing a lower court.

License PlatesThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was a man who lost his mother in a fatal car accident. The driver who struck and killed his mother had previously had her license suspended but had it reinstated two years later. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was responsible for reinstating the woman’s license.

The plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against both the driver of the vehicle as well as the DMV. He claimed that the DMV violated a non-discretionary duty to refer the woman’s application to reinstate her license to a medical board to review if the woman was medically fit to have her license reinstated.

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