Articles Posted in Governmental Liability

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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Earlier this month, a Connecticut appellate court issued a written opinion in a premises liability case brought by a student and his parents against the student’s high school. In the case, Strycharz v. Cady, the appellate court held that the lower court improperly found that governmental immunity protected the assistant principals, who had a non-discretionary, ministerial duty to assign an adult to monitor the entrance to the school’s parking lot. As a result of the court’s decision, the plaintiffs’ case will proceed toward trial against the assistant principals.

School BusesThe Facts of the Case

Strycharz was a student at Bacon Academy. After being bussed to school, Strycharz and another student briefly left the school grounds to go smoke a cigarette. However, on the way across the busy street, Strycharz was struck by a passing vehicle driven by another student.

Strycharz and his family filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver of the vehicle as well as several administrators at the school. He claimed that the administrators had a duty to assign a school employee to monitor the school’s entrance, since it was known to be very busy in the morning.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion discussing how the “public duty” doctrine can act to prevent a plaintiff from suing a government agency for alleged acts of negligence stemming from a breach of a duty owed to the general public. In the case, McFarlin v. State, the court determined that the state owed a general duty to maintain the lake where the accident occurred in a safe condition. Because there was no evidence that there was some additional duty owed to the plaintiff, the public duty doctrine prevented government liability.

Cityscape on WaterThe Facts of the Case

Ms. McFarlin’s young son was on a boat being operated by her boyfriend on a lake that was owned and operated by the state. Shortly after embarking, McFarlin’s boyfriend drove the boat near two “danger” buoys that were marking a shallow dredge pipe. The boat came too close to the pipe, struck it, and flipped over. As a result, McFarlin’s young son died.

McFarlin sued the state, alleging that it was negligent in the placement of the buoys, the placement of the pipe, and that the pipe was not adequately marked. The state took the position that it was not liable because it did not violate any duty owed to the plaintiff. Specifically, the state claimed that the duty to keep the lake safe was owed to the general public, and that there was nothing establishing that it owed the plaintiff a duty above and beyond that which was owed to the public. Because of that, the public duty doctrine prevented the state from being found liable.

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Earlier this month, an appellate court in California issued an opinion in a case brought by the father of a boy who died after he sustained a traumatic brain injury when he fell off his skateboard after hitting a lip around a manhole cover. In the case, Bertsch v. Mammoth Community Water District, the court held that the doctrine of “assumption of the risk” prevented the boy’s father from successfully seeking compensation for his loss.

SkateboarderThe Facts of the Case

The plaintiff took his two boys on a trip to Mammoth County to enjoy a friend’s condo for a few days. While there, the plaintiff’s sons were out skateboarding around the neighborhood before they were going to meet back up and all go rock climbing. The boys were not performing any tricks, but they did push themselves up a hill so that they could enjoy the long, fast ride down to meet their dad.

Tragically, on the way down the hill, one of the boys’ skateboards hit a lip surrounding a manhole cover, causing the skateboard to come to a complete stop. The young boy flew off the board, striking his head on the pavement as he landed. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and shortly afterward passed away.

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