Articles Posted in Relevant Personal Injury Case Law

Generally, landowners owe a duty of care to people who come on their land, the extent of which depends on the relationship between the parties and the circumstances of the incident. Maryland’s Recreational Use Statute is an exception in that, when the statute applies, a landowner owes no duty of care to others, allowing them to escape liability in a Maryland premises liability case.

A recent case is an example of how landowners may avoid liability in such cases. In that case, a woman was injured while she was attending a free concert at a university. As she had been leaving the concert, she fell on a staircase with no handrails. She sustained serious injuries and died as a result. Her estate and her children filed a wrongful death claim against the university.

The university claimed that it was immune from suit under the state’s Recreational Property Act. Under the state’s law, a landowner does not have a duty to keep premises safe if others are using the land for recreational purposes. The concert took place at a county park, but the university had a permit to use it for the concert series. The woman’s family agreed that attending the free concert was a recreational activity. However, the family argued that the purpose of the concert series was mostly commercial. They noted that there were food and drinks available for purchase, that sponsors had tents and logos, and that it provided the university with a branding opportunity.

Most Maryland residents know that when someone else causes them to be injured, the state’s law protects them by allowing them to file a personal injury lawsuit. For instance, if Driver A runs a red light and hits Driver B, Driver B can sue Driver A to recover for their injuries. If a manufacturer sells a defective product to a customer that causes them to get hurt, the customer can sue the manufacturer. Most of these cases have a clear cause and effect — the defendant (negligent party) takes some action that causes the plaintiff to get hurt. Recovering may be complicated, however, for those who are injured in a Maryland slip and fall accident. Unlike many other personal injury lawsuits, these are often caused by a defendant failing to do something, rather than some action that they took.

Take, for example, the facts of a recent state appellate case. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff, a grandmother, was staying at the defendant’s hotel with her four grandchildren, whom she took to the hotel pool one evening. At some point, she left the pool to escort her youngest grandson to the bathroom, walking along the sidewalk from the pool to the hotel room. According to the plaintiff’s testimony, the sidewalk was shiny, wet, and looked slick. The plaintiff told her grandson, who was dripping wet and walking in front of her, to slow down. While walking, she slipped and fell, suffering multiple injuries to the left side of her body.

Under Maryland premises liability law, the injured plaintiff, in this case, may be able to hold the hotel owner responsible. State law requires hotel owners, and other landowners, to take reasonable care in maintaining their property, and to warn guests of any known dangers. For instance, if the plaintiff could show that the hotel knew that the area in question was prone to getting very slippery and dangerous, and yet decided not to put up a sign warning of said fact, they may be successful in their personal injury suit.

Interrogatories are part of the discovery process in a civil case. An interrogatory is a series of written questions asked by one party to another, which must be answered in writing. In Maryland motor vehicle accident cases, any party may serve written interrogatories to another party. The receiving party must answer interrogatories within 30 days after service or within 15 days after the date after the date when the party’s initial pleading or motion is required, whichever is later. Responses must be made under oath.

A recent case before a federal appeals court shows how failing to answer interrogatories completely and honestly can lead to much bigger problems down the road. In that case, a van had slipped off the edge of a roadway while carrying six family members—all were injured, and one family member died. The crash took place in a construction zone, where a guardrail had been removed and had not been replaced. The lines on the road also had not been repainted where it had been repaved, and there were pieces of asphalt on the shoulder.

The family sued the two construction companies that had repaved the road. The defense attorney for the companies told the plaintiffs that the two companies had a joint venture with a $1 million insurance policy. The defense attorney sent initial disclosures under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26. In the disclosures, concerning the defendants’ insurance coverage, they listed the joint venture’s $1 million policy as their only insurance coverage. The parties settled for $1 million and signed a release stating that they were not relying on any statements by any parties’ attorneys.

In a Maryland premises liability case based on a dangerous condition, a plaintiff must establish certain elements. Specifically, a plaintiff must prove 1.) that a dangerous condition existed on the defendant’s premises; 2.) the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the dangerous condition; 3.) the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff; 4.) the defendant knew about the dangerous condition for long enough remove the condition or to warn the plaintiff; 5.) the plaintiff suffered an injury; and 6.) the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s injury. A recent case before a state appeals court is an example of a situation in which the plaintiff failed to sufficiently show the existence of a dangerous condition.

In that case, the plaintiff went to a Dollar General store one morning. After completing her purchase, and on her way back to her car, she became distracted by a display rack on the sidewalk and by other customers walking in and out of the store, and stepped off of the sidewalk onto the parking lot, hitting a concrete parking abutment. She tripped over the parking abutment, fell forward, and suffered injuries to her knee, head, and elbow, which required her to undergo surgery and physical therapy. The plaintiff claimed that the store owner breached its duty to keep the premises safe. She claimed that the parking abutment was a hazardous condition because it was unpainted and slanted and because the display rack was a distraction.

The court dismissed the plaintiff’s case, reasoning that even if the parking abutment was a hazardous condition, the plaintiff was aware of the hazard and failed to exercise ordinary care to protect herself. First, the plaintiff testified in her deposition that she had been to the store 20 or 25 times before and knew that there were parking abutments in the parking lot. She knew that they looked like and was aware of them. Second, she testified that she had crossed the same area about ten minutes before the fall when she had entered the store. She failed to exercise ordinary care in failing to pay attention to the display rack instead of looking where she was walking. Third, the display rack did not block her view of the area where the parking abutment was situated. She had also seen the display rack and had walked around it on her way into the store. Therefore, the parking abutment was open and obvious, and “any hazard presented by it could have been avoided by [the plaintiff] in the exercise of reasonable care.”

When filing a legal claim against an independent contractor after a Maryland accident, an independent contractor may claim that they cannot be held independently liable. Maryland courts have recognized that there are times in which independent contractors are also agents of another, often reliving them of independent liability. However, that is not always the case, and the party that claims there is a principal-agent relationship must prove the existence of such a relationship.

In a recent state appellate case, the court considered whether a personal trainer was an agent of a gym. In that case, the plaintiff was using a weight machine when she fractured a bone in her hand, requiring her to undergo two surgeries. She was under the direction of a personal trainer at the time she injured her hand, and she claimed the personal trainer improperly instructed her on how to use the machine, thereby causing her injury. The plaintiff brought a claim against the gym and the trainer, who had been contracted by the gym. The trainer argued that she was an agent of the gym, and could not be held independently liable because the gym had hired her to teach there. In contrast, the plaintiff argued the personal trainer was not an agent of the gym because she was an independent contractor there.

The court explained that there are circumstances in which a person may be an independent contractor and an agent of the principal. It explained that these circumstances exist where a contractor is a fiduciary that owes the principal loyalty and obedience. Examples of this include attorneys, brokers, and collection agencies. But in cases in which an independent contractor claims to be an agent, the independent contractor must establish the characteristics of the principal-agent relationship, including the principal’s right to control the physical conduct of the agent. In this case, there was not sufficient evidence that the trainer was an agent of the gym to dismiss the case against the trainer. Therefore, the court held that the case should continue against the trainer and that a jury would be required to resolve the issue.

Movies and television may have people believe that most civil lawsuits end in a dramatic trial. While this does sometimes happen, most Maryland personal injury lawsuits actually do not make it this far. Sometimes the parties settle with each other prior to trial, or sometimes a judge will find that there is no need to go to trial because one party cannot win. Many cases are decided at what is called “summary judgment.” Before trial, both parties can file a motion for summary judgment, which is basically asking a judge to rule in their favor. Summary judgment is proper if there is no genuine issue of material fact, such that there is nothing for a jury to decide and a trial is inappropriate.

For an illustration of how summary judgment can work, take a recent state appellate case. According to the court’s written opinion, the accident occurred while the plaintiff was cleaning out her daughter’s car in a cleaning area of their apartment complex. As the plaintiff stepped from the paved parking lot up to a landscaped area that had a car vacuum, she slipped and fell backward, resulting in substantial injuries. The plaintiff filed a negligence action against the apartment complex, alleging that she had slipped on a foreign substance. During her deposition for the case, she testified that she did not know what caused her to fall, and that there was no water on the ground, but that the rocks were smooth and slippery.

According to the plaintiff, the defendant apartment complex was negligent in maintaining the complex’s premises. However, the defendants filed for summary judgment, arguing that the suit had to be dropped because there was insufficient evidence of any hazardous condition. While the lower court denied the motion, on appeal the court found that the defendants were correct. The court reasoned that summary judgment was proper in the case because the plaintiff had not offered evidence that the area she slipped on was actually wet or otherwise hazardous, and in fact testified that there was no liquid in the area and that she did not know what made her slip.

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.

In some personal injury cases, there is no direct evidence that a party was negligent, but there is also no other reasonable explanation for how the plaintiff’s injuries occurred. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applies in cases in which negligence can be inferred, based on the circumstances, but there is no direct evidence of negligence. Under Maryland law, res ipsa loquitur is available in accident cases if an injury or accident “is one which ordinarily would not occur without negligence on the part of the operator of the vehicle,” and “the facts are so clear and certain that the inference of negligence arises naturally.” Res ipsa loquitur allows a plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of negligence, without having direct evidence of negligence. The doctrine requires that a plaintiff show:  (1) the accident was a type that does not normally occur absent negligence, (2) the accident was caused by an instrument exclusively in the defendant’s control, and (3) the accident was not caused by the plaintiff. In a recent case, a court considered the applicability of the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur after small metal fragments were discovered in a container of yogurt.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff bought a small container of yogurt that was manufactured and packaged by Yoplait. The plaintiff claimed that she opened the container, stirred it, and began eating, when she felt a crunching sensation, which she found out were sharp metal fragments. She was taken to a hospital, where 17 metal fragments were removed from her stomach. She filed claims against Yoplait for negligence and negligence per se. A trial court found that the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur applied in this case because there was “an inference that the metal flakes were inserted . . . prior to the container being sealed.” But the trial judge found that Yoplait had rebutted the inference and dismissed the case.

The appeals court held that the judge should not have dismissed the case because if res ipsa loquitur applies, the case should go to a jury for a decision. The court explained that the doctrine warrants an inference of negligence, rather than a presumption of negligence. Therefore, the trial court should have allowed the jury to make a decision concerning Yoplait’s negligence and whether Yoplait overcame the inference of negligence. Accordingly, the appeals court sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. The court also noted that Yoplait failed to appeal the court’s ruling that res ipsa loquitur applied in the case, so it could not decide whether that decision was correct.

When someone is injured in a Maryland accident, state law allows them to file a civil lawsuit against the responsible party. In order to be successful in a negligence claim of this type, the plaintiff must prove four things. First, the defendant owed a duty of care toward the plaintiff to act in a way to protect them from harm. Second, the defendant breached this standard. Third, the breach was the proximate cause of the injury. Finally, the plaintiff was injured and suffered actual harm as a result. In a straightforward negligence case, proving these four things will be enough for victory. However, many negligence cases get complicated, and there are some common barriers that bar plaintiffs from recovery. One of these barriers is the assumption of risk doctrine.

The term “assumption of risk” refers to when the plaintiff unnecessarily exposed themselves to the harm that was done to them. For example, a recent state appellate case considered the issue. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was helping the defendant dismantle an old building and noticed that there were skylights on the roof. The plaintiff volunteered to go up on the roof and remove the screws. Since the roof was so dirty and weathered, he was unable to see the skylights. While working on the roof, the plaintiff fell through a skylight and onto the concrete below, suffering multiple severe injuries. The plaintiff then sued the defendant, the owner of the building, for negligence.

Under Maryland laws, situations like this become more complicated than a straightforward negligence case because the defendant can argue that the plaintiff assumed the risk of his injuries by going up on the roof, knowing that there were skylights and that he could not see them. In these cases, the defendant can raise this defense by proving three things. The plaintiff had knowledge of the risk, the plaintiff understood that the risk could lead to serious harm, and the plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk anyway. In the case described above, for example, the defendant must prove that the plaintiff was aware of the skylights on the roof and understood that they were fragile and that falling through them would cause harm, yet he volunteered to go up on the roof anyway. If the defendant can do that, Maryland law would allow him to escape liability for the plaintiff’s injuries.

In Maryland, plaintiffs in personal injury cases need to prove four things to be successful:  the defendant had a duty of care; the defendant breached that duty through an act or an omission; the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; and real damages were sustained. These cases, also called tort cases, are separate from contract cases, in which a party can sue another party for breaching a contract. Sometimes, however, a Maryland resident is injured because of the negligent actions of another person, with whom they contracted. This area of law can become difficult to figure out.

For example, take the facts of a recent appellate case. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiffs, a couple, entered into a construction contract in 2009 with the defendant contractor to build a new house. Shortly after the house was finished, the plaintiffs discovered leaks in the doors, which allowed rainwater to get into the house. The contractors fixed the leaks as they were discovered but did not look for mold. Four years later, the plaintiffs and their four children, living in the house, experienced medical symptoms and brought in an inspector, who discovered mold in the basement below where the leaks had occurred. In addition, the doors were still leaking. The contractor tried but failed to fix these leaks and remediate the mold, applying anti-microbial solution and attempting to clean mold where it was found, but it did not look for additional mold. Later, mold was discovered in the drywall of the house, and the contractor again attempted to deal with it, although the mold continued to grow. Finally, the plaintiffs and their children abandoned the home due to the mold and the resulting medical symptoms and sued the contractor in tort for the injuries that they sustained.

Maryland law allows plaintiffs to bring tort claims against defendants with which they contracted, as long as the damages sustained are not purely economic and based upon contractual duties. For example, the plaintiffs could not bring a tort claim against the defendant contractor for failing to build the fence properly and ask for damages in the amount that it would cost to fix the fence. That case would have to be handled through a contract claim because the damages are purely economic and only come from the contract in which the defendant agreed to fix the fence. In contrast, the plaintiffs here would be able to bring suit because they suffered real medical injuries and symptoms from the mold, and the defendants were negligent in failing to find and clean the mold.

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