Articles Posted in Governmental Liability

Typically, when the negligence of a person, business, or other entity results in injury to another, the injured party can pursue a Maryland personal injury claim against the at-fault party. However, when the at-fault party is a government entity, certain complications can arise.

Under the U.S. Constitution, as originally written, the state and federal governments were unable to be held liable for their actions. However, over time the inequities of this rule became apparent, as accident victims often found themselves with no means of recovery. Thus, the state and federal governments passed laws called “tort claims acts,” under which certain lawsuits against the government were allowed.

The Maryland Tort Claims Act is contained in Maryland Code sections 12-101 through 12-110 and broadly waives the state government’s immunity. Specifically, the Act waives immunity in any tort action but limits the amount of recovery to $400,000 to a single person for injuries arising from a single incident or occurrence. However, to successfully bring a case against a government entity, specific steps must be taken.

The Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA) was enacted in 1981. Under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, immunity is generally afforded to the state, and to state employees for their actions that are carried out without malice or gross negligence. Because it may apply in Maryland accident cases, understanding the statute, its limits, and its requirements, is extremely important.

Under the MTCA, a written claim against the state must be filed with the State Treasurer within one year of the cause of action arising. The claim must include a statement of facts and specific damages. If the Treasurer denies the claim, the case can be filed in court. However, it still must be filed within three years of when the cause of action arises. There are some exceptions to the rule, including if the State already had notice of the injury within the year after the cause of action accrued. In addition, filing a claim with the State Treasurer tolls the statute of limitations for 60 days after a final denial is made by the State Treasurer.

In a recent state appellate decision, the court considered whether another statute acted as an exception to the state’s tort claims act. Under the state’s act, there is a two-year statute of limitations for submitting claims to a state agency and also to file suit under the Act. If the state makes a final decision and denies the claim, the claimant has an additional six months from the date of mailing of the notice to file suit if the statute of limitations would expire before the end of that period.

Expert testimony can be helpful in certain claims to explain evidence to the fact finder. In Maryland accident cases, expert testimony may be admitted if the court decides that the testimony will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or decide a fact at issue. Yet, expert testimony is required only if the issue is beyond the knowledge of a layperson. Expert testimony is not required “on matters of which the jurors would be aware by virtue of common knowledge.” A recent decision from a state supreme court is an example of a case in which the court found expert testimony was not required.

In that case, a child was allegedly assaulted on the playground during recess at her elementary school. The student and her mother filed a claim against the city and the Board of Education alleging negligence. The trial court found in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that the school provided inadequate supervision at the time. The trial court found there were 3 or 4 staff members and 1 student intern, which was insufficient to supervise over as many as 400 students. An appellate court reversed the decision, stating that the court should not have found the defendants breached their duty without expert testimony on the issue.

However, the state’s supreme court reversed again. The court held that expert testimony was not necessary in that case. The court explained that expert testimony is required generally in cases amounting to professional malpractice. Expert testimony is not required in cases where the negligence is so extreme that it is clear to a layperson and it is not required where the alleged error is within the common knowledge of a layperson.

Filing a Maryland injury lawsuit can be more complicated when the state government is the defendant in the case. One potential complication is that a plaintiff must first provide notice when filing a claim against the state of Maryland in a personal injury claim.

Under section 12-106 of the Maryland Tort Claims Act (the Act), a claimant cannot bring a claim under the Act unless the claimant submits a written claim to the Treasurer within one year after the injury. The Treasurer then must deny the claim before the claim can be filed in court. The claim also must be filed within three years after the cause of action arises. There are some exceptions to the rule, for example, if the state has actual or constructive notice of the injury or of the defect within the year following the injury. The notice must comply with the requirements detailed in section 12-107 of the Act, which include a statement of facts and specific damages.

A recent case demonstrates how strictly notice requirements can be construed. In that case, an appeals court considered whether an estimate of damages in a notice to a city complied with the notice requirement. The plaintiff sent her notice to the city, notifying the city that she broke her leg after she stepped in a hole on a city crosswalk. She claimed that the city was negligent because residents had notified the city about the hole, and the city failed to repair it. In the notice, the plaintiff stated that “to the extent that [she] was require[d] to provide a dollar value,” she believed the value of the claim “may exceed $300,000.00.” She also stated that if the letter did not provide sufficient notice under the state, the city should advise her immediately in writing, and that she would correct any deficiencies. The woman subsequently filed suit in court. The city then responded to the notice, stating that the city denied liability. In response to the lawsuit, the city argued that the plaintiff had not complied with the notice requirement.

In general, Maryland personal injury law provides that landowners owe a duty to those whom they allow onto their property. This duty typically requires that the landowner cure any known hazards, or warn visitors about dangers that cannot be remedied. However, many state legislatures have enacted statutes that exempt certain property owners from liability if someone is injured while using the property for a recreational purpose.

These statutes are generally referred to as recreational use statutes. In Maryland, the recreational use statute is contained in Maryland Code section 5-1104. The law provides that a landowner who allows others to use their property without charge for an educational or recreational purpose cannot generally be liable for a guest’s injuries. This statute applies to both public and privately held land. A recent case illustrates the type of issues that can come up when a defendant cites the recreational use statute as a defense.

According to the court’s opinion, two sisters attended a free “Second Sunday” concert at a public park. To access the park, the women parked their car on the street and then descended a flight of stairs down the grassy slope. Once the women got about halfway down the hill, they exited the stairs and found a place to watch the show.

Local governments, like other property owners, have an obligation to keep public spaces safe for visitors. While the procedures involved in filing a case against a government are slightly different from those required in a Maryland premises liability lawsuit against a private individual or corporation, in each of these situations a plaintiff must be able to prove that the landowner’s negligence in maintaining their property resulted in the plaintiff’s injuries.

To prove that a landowner was negligent, a plaintiff must first show that the landowner knew of the hazard that caused their injuries. Once the defendant’s knowledge is established, the plaintiff must show that the landowner was somehow negligent in failing to remedy the hazard or warn of the hazard’s existence. Finally, a plaintiff must prove that their injuries were the result of the landowner’s negligence. This is referred to as “causation.” In a recent case involving a slip-and-fall injury that occurred at a cemetery, the court discussed the plaintiff’s burden to prove causation.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was visiting the gravesites of several family members in a cemetery that was owned by the defendant city when he stepped in a hole that was covered by grass. Evidently, the hole was deep enough such that the plaintiff fell down to his knee, folded over at the waist, and struck his head against the ground.

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Whenever someone is injured due to the negligence of another person or entity, the injured party is entitled to pursue a claim for compensation through a Maryland personal injury lawsuit. However, based on longstanding constitutional principles, government agencies enjoy immunity from some of these lawsuits. Thus, one of the most important considerations after a Maryland accident is whether any of the defendants are government employees and, if so, whether they may be entitled to immunity.

Under Maryland case law, government agencies are entitled to immunity when carrying out discretionary duties. A discretionary duty, as the name implies, is one which involves the exercise of discretion. If an act is not discretionary, it is ministerial, meaning that it does not require the judgment of a government employee. A recent case illustrates how courts approach the distinction between ministerial and discretionary acts.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, a young girl was planning on attending a field trip to a pool that was located in a government-owned park. Because the young girl could not swim, her mother spoke with the playground coordinator, who reassured her that the girl’s ability would be assessed in the shallow end of the pool. The mother agreed to let her daughter go on the field trip. Tragically, however, the young girl drowned in the pool as staff members were changing in the locker room.

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Recently, an appellate court issued a written opinion in a car accident case raising an important issue that comes up regularly in Maryland personal injury cases that are filed against a government agency or official. Specifically, the case presented the court with the opportunity to discuss whether a police officer’s actions were considered a discretionary act. Ultimately, the court determined that the officer’s actions were not covered under discretionary-act immunity, and permitted the plaintiff’s case to proceed against the city.

The Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was injured after his vehicle was struck by a police cruiser that was responding to an emergency call. According to the court’s recitation of the facts, the police cruiser made a left turn against a red traffic signal, colliding with the plaintiff’s vehicle. It was agreed that the officer would not have been able to see oncoming traffic as he approached the intersection, but it was disputed whether the officer’s lights and sirens were on at the time he entered the intersection.

The plaintiff subsequently brought a personal injury claim against the city that employed the officer, arguing that the city was vicariously liable for the officer’s negligent actions. The city successfully argued to the trial court that it was entitled to government immunity because the officer was engaged in a discretionary act that was within the scope of his employment at the time of the accident. The plaintiff appealed.

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The Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA) allows for certain Maryland personal injury cases to be filed against the state and local governments. However, under the MTCA, cases that name government employees or agencies as defendants are subject to additional procedural requirements.

Under Maryland Code section 12-106, an injury victim must first file a claim with the State Treasurer before they can proceed with a personal injury case. Additionally, the following requirements must be met:

  • The claim must be filed within one year of the incident and must provide the basis for the claim;
  • The claim must be denied by the Treasurer; and
  • Any subsequent personal injury case must be filed within three years of the date of the accident.

In the event that a claimant fails to comply with these requirements, the court may still hear the case unless the state can establish that it has been prejudiced as a result of the plaintiff’s failure to submit a claim.

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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.”

While 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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