Articles Posted in Relevant Personal Injury Case Law

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

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.

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 slips and falls, causing injuries, they may be entitled to bring a personal injury lawsuit against whoever owns the property or was responsible for leaving it in a hazardous condition. Maryland slip and fall accidents are frequently brought against cleaning companies for failing to post “wet floor” notices, or against grocery store owners who fail to notice or remedy a leak that causes a customer to slip and suffer injuries. However, Maryland residents should be aware that not every slip and fall case leads to a successful personal injury suit.

For example, take a recent slip and fall case decided in a state appellate court. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was working in an airport when the accident occurred. One evening, after completing her shift, she went to an office elsewhere in the airport to turn in some paperwork and money. As she got off of an escalator, she noticed a man cleaning the airport was to her left and a “wet floor” sign. She turned right and walked towards the office when she slipped and fell. Unfortunately, she landed hard on her right side, striking her head and briefly losing consciousness. When she regained consciousness, she noticed that her clothes were wet. As a result of her fall, she suffered neck and spinal injuries that required surgery.

The plaintiff brought suit against the independent contractor responsible for cleaning the area. Her suit was based on the defendant’s negligence, claiming that they had knowledge of the danger that she did not have but failed to warn her of the hazard of the wet floor. The defendant moved for summary judgment and to have the case dismissed, arguing that the plaintiff also had knowledge of the hazard. The trial court granted their motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

Unfortunately, Maryland drivers encounter dangerous situations all the time—a car stopped in the middle of the road, debris blocking the roadway, or even a chain-reaction crash. Yet, even when a Maryland driver encounters a dangerous situation, the driver must respond reasonably to the situation under the circumstances. Failure to do so may make the driver liable for resulting injuries. Under Maryland law, a driver who “suddenly finds himself in a position of peril” is not expected to exercise the same care as when the driver has sufficient time to decide what he should do. This is known as the emergency doctrine and may apply in some Maryland accident cases. However, the doctrine does not apply when the peril comes about because of the driver’s own negligence or if the driver is not actually in a position of sudden peril. Where a driver does take an action in response to the emergency, a jury (or judge) must consider whether the driver made a choice that a reasonable, prudent person would make considering the choices he had and the time he had to recognize and evaluate those choices.

In a recent case involving the sudden emergency doctrine before one state appellate court, the court explained how and where the sudden emergency doctrine applies under that state’s law. In that case, the defendant was driving on the highway and changed lanes and passed a stopped vehicle to avoid crashing into the stopped vehicle. The plaintiff’s husband’s vehicle was behind the defendant’s vehicle and crashed into the stopped vehicle. The plaintiff’s husband died and the plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against the defendant and others.

The defendant argued that the sudden emergency doctrine applied and acted as a complete defense. The defendant argued that the sudden emergency was the stopped car that he encountered in the road. The plaintiff argued that the defendant created the emergency by changing lanes at an unreasonably late time for the plaintiff’s husband to see the stopped car. The plaintiff argued that the sudden emergency was the husband’s inability to see the stopped car because of the defendant’s late lane change.

In order to hold another person or entity liable for injuries sustained in a Maryland accident, the defendant must have owed a duty to the plaintiff to protect the plaintiff from the harm the plaintiff suffered. For example, a person who falls on a sidewalk generally cannot hold another passerby liable for the injuries from the fall because the passerby was not involved in the fall and did not owe a duty to prevent the person’s fall or even to render aid to the person. However, for example, the city might be liable for the person’s injuries if it failed to repair the sidewalk. In such a case, the city might have had a duty to repair the sidewalk if it was made aware of the sidewalk’s dangerous condition, and may have failed to meet its duty by failing to take any action.

Under Maryland law, duty is characterized as an obligation to meet a certain standard of conduct towards another. In considering whether a defendant owed a duty to a plaintiff in a certain scenario, courts will consider the relationship between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury and whether the harm the plaintiff suffered was foreseeable, among other things. A recent decision from another state appeals court illustrates the limits of a hotel’s duty to a guest in one scenario.

In that case, the plaintiff brought a wrongful death claim against the hotel on behalf of their deceased loved one. Evidently, the deceased accident victim was a guest at the hotel, which offered guests a free golf cart service to take guests around the property. Per the hotel’s policy, the golf cart would cross a local public road next to the hotel to drop guests off on the other side but otherwise did not travel on public roads. One night, the accident victim asked a bellman to give him a ride in the golf cart, and asked to go to a grocery store which was across a highway. Per the hotel’s policy, the bellman did not take the decedent to the store and instead dropped him off on the other side of the public road. The decedent was required to cross the highway to get to the store and while waiting to cross on foot, he was hit by a car and later died.

There are certain personal injury cases where there is no specific evidence tying the defendant to the accident, but it is clear that the defendant caused the accident and should be held liable. In these instances, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur can often be utilized. Res ipsa loquitur is Latin for the “thing speaks for itself” and allows a jury to infer the defendant’s negligence without needing direct evidence. While not often used, res ipsa loquitor can be extremely beneficial to help Maryland plaintiffs recover for their injuries, who might not be able to so otherwise.

In a recent state appellate case, a plaintiff was injured leaving his doctor’s office. Stepping onto the elevator, the plaintiff did not notice the floor of the elevator was two feet below the landing. The plaintiff sued the property owner, arguing the owner was negligent by not fixing the elevator. Among other claims, he argued the defendant was liable under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Although the defendant had sole control over the elevator, and was in charge of its maintenance, the court granted summary judgment for the defendant. During the appeal, the plaintiff chose not to raise the issue of res ipsa loquitor, meaning a jury would not hear this claim.

When a plaintiff asserts res ipsa loquitor in a Maryland personal injury case, they are claiming that negligence may be presumed from the circumstances of the accident. Unlike a traditional negligence claim, a plaintiff relying on res ipsa loquitor does not need to establish the traditional requirements of negligence, nor do they need to provide direct evidence linking the defendant to the accident.

Individuals pursuing a product liability case in Maryland courts can bring their claim under one or more of the three types of Maryland product liability claims: manufacturing defects, design defects, and warning defects. Under Maryland law, a design defect case considers whether a manufacturer knew the risks inherent in the product and unreasonably put the product on the market despite the risk. This may mean, for example, that a product malfunctions due to its design or that it lacked a reasonable safety device. A design defect focuses on the risks and benefits of the product’s design and on the specifications for constructing a product.

A recent case before another state’s appeals court considered whether a rat was a product under strict liability law. In that case, a 10-year-old boy purchased a rat from a Petco store. Two weeks after the 10-year-old purchased the rat, he fell ill. He was taken to the hospital and died shortly after he arrived. It was later revealed that the boy contracted a rare bacterial infection — rat bite fever (RBF) — from the rat he had purchased at Petco and he died from complications related to the infection. The boy’s father filed a claim against Petco, alleging in part that the store was strictly liable for his son’s death. The man argued that the rat was a defective product and that Petco was liable under a strict products liability theory.

The appeals court held that a live pet animal sold in its unaltered state was not a “product” subject to the design defect consumer expectations theory. According to the evidence presented at trial, 10 to 100 percent of wild rats carry the bacteria streptobacillus moniliformis, the bacteria that causes the infection in humans. The court stated that a rat carrying streptobacillus moniliformis is not in a diseased condition (which would be the defect in this case), because the infection that the boy developed is developed by some humans after exposure to streptobacillus moniliformis. Thus, the court reasoned that the rat could not be a defective product. It further explained that in a design defect case there must be a “design” of the product, and that in this case, pet rats living in their natural state are not “designed.” Therefore, the rat living in its unaltered state could not be a product subject to a design defect theory. The court also reasoned that the store could not have prevented the defect because the animal was living in its natural state free from disease. The court noted that, although it rejected the design defect claim, the plaintiff could file claims of negligence, negligent warning, and warning and manufacturing strict liability causes of action.

A state supreme court was recently tasked with deciding whether the owner of a church could be held liable after the plaintiff was injured on the stairs outside of the building. While Maryland landowners often have to warn visitors of any danger, they do not need to if the dangerous condition was an open and obvious hazard that a reasonable person would recognize. Ultimately, the court concluded that the dangerous condition was open and obvious, and the church owner was not liable for the plaintiff’s injury under a premise liability theory.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was hurt while carrying a casket down the church’s outdoor steps. Although the plaintiff had previously used these steps, he tripped near the top, falling into the church building and injuring himself.

While landowners generally have a duty to keep their property safe, in Maryland, they do not need to warn others if the hazard is “open and obvious” to a reasonable person. When the dangerous condition is open and obvious, the landowner cannot be held liable under a premise liability theory. In this case, the court needed to determine whether the top step outside of the church was an open and obvious hazard that a reasonable person would have taken appropriate care to avoid. The court noted that the set of stairs the plaintiff tripped on had five steps, with the top step an additional four inches higher than the others. Additionally, the top step was composed of red bricks while the other steps were made of gray concrete. Finally, the court took note of the fact that the plaintiff walked down the stairs a few minutes before the accident. Because of these factors, the court concluded that the differences between the top step and the other four would be readily apparent to most people.

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