Articles Posted in Relevant Personal Injury Case Law

Individuals injured in Maryland accidents have the ability to file a personal injury lawsuit against the party who negligently caused the accident. In some cases, they can also bring suit against the defendant’s employer, who may be more able to financially compensate the victim. But typically, to recover under this theory of vicarious liability against the employer, an individual must prove that the employee’s negligent actions occurred in the course and the scope of their employment. This can be a confusing doctrinal point for many potential plaintiffs, but it basically means that employers cannot be sued for things their employees did outside of their work—if an employee who gets weekends off gets drunk one Saturday night and goes on a drive to a bar, for example, their employer typically cannot be held liable if they cause a car accident because that accident had nothing to do with their employment. This is an important nuance to understand in the doctrine for plaintiffs considering filing suit against a negligent defendant and their employer.

One recent state appellate case illustrates this doctrine and how it may come up. According to the court’s written opinion, the defendant in the case was an employee at a deli, and sometimes made deliveries with his own car. One morning, his manager called him early to make a delivery later that day, and he agreed. He left for work a little earlier than usual that morning so he could do some prep before taking the delivery. On his way to work, he lost control of his car and struck another vehicle, killing the two men inside. A blood test after the accident showed that he had marijuana in his system at the time of the accident. The deceased driver’s wife filed suit against the employee and his employer, arguing that they were vicariously liable for the accident. The employer filed for summary judgment, arguing that the employee was not acting in the course and scope of his employment at the time of the accident.

On appeal, the appellate court found that the employer was entitled to this grant of summary judgment, because going to and from work in one’s own vehicle generally falls outside the scope of employment. The employee was driving his own car, had not yet clocked in, and would not be paid for the time spent in his commute—and thus, it was not sufficiently related to his employment such that vicarious liability was proper. This case highlights the importance of understanding how and when various forms of liability are proper when filing a personal injury lawsuit, to maximize your chances of success.

If a person is injured on property owned by a business, the business might be liable for the person’s injuries, depending on the circumstances. Business owners owe customers and guests a duty to exercise ordinary care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition. To prevail on a Maryland premises liability claim, a plaintiff must prove that a dangerous condition existed on the defendant’s premises, the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition, the defendant’s knowledge existed for long enough that the defendant had the opportunity to remove it or to warn the plaintiff, and the defendant’s failure to act caused the plaintiff’s injury.

A plaintiff must demonstrate that a defective condition existed for long enough that the defendant had a duty to inspect to discover the defect and remedy it. The purpose of the requirement is to ensure that the dangerous condition existed for long enough that the defendant should have discovered it and to determine the amount of time the hazards were present between inspections.

In a recent case before a state appellate court, the court held that a business owner may be held liable for the plaintiff’s injuries after she fell on a tree root outside the business. In that case, the plaintiff was walking to the Chick-fil-A restaurant and tripped on the partially-exposed root, injuring two bones in her leg. The plaintiff had walked to the restaurant from her job nearby many times before by walking across a dirt area she and other pedestrians used to access the restaurant’s parking lot. According to the evidence, the root stuck out about two inches and was not in this condition four days prior, when a landscaping crew had inspected the area for tripping hazards.

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.

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