Maryland Appeals Court Rules on Issue Preclusion and Contributory Negligence in Auto Accident Case

An interesting decision by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals addressed the applicability of an out-of-state jury verdict in a Maryland lawsuit concerning issue preclusion. In Bryan v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the court found that a New York verdict finding a driver negligent precluded the driver from claiming on his insurance policy in Maryland. The court applied the doctrine of contributory negligence, which is still on the books in only a handful of states, including Maryland.

Brenton Bryan was driving in Freeport, New York on May 29, 2006, with his wife and two children in the car. According to Bryan, a “phantom vehicle” cut him off by changing lanes unexpectedly. This caused Bryan’s car to strike two other vehicles. The driver of one of those cars was Juan Chevez. Chevez and his wife, Ines Chevez, who was a passenger in the vehicle, sued Bryan in Queens County, New York, alleging that he was negligent and therefore responsible for the accident.

A jury trial in December 2010 focused exclusively on the question of Bryan’s liability. The jury found that Bryan operated his vehicle negligently that night, and that this was a “substantial factor in bringing about the accident.” Bryan and the Chevezes subsequently agreed to settle the matter for $30,000 in exchange for a general release.

While the Chevezes’ case was pending, Bryan and his wife filed suit in Maryland against their insurer, State Farm. They had attempted to claim uninsured driver benefits because of the “phantom driver.” Once the jury trial in New York concluded, State Farm moved for summary judgment, arguing that the jury verdict precluded Bryan from bringing a claim against State Farm. Issue preclusion, also known as collateral estoppel, is the principle that a litigant cannot assert an argument or defense that another court has already adjudicated. The court granted summary judgment, holding that because the New York court found Bryan at least partly liable for the accident, Maryland’s contributory negligence rule prevented him from alleging anyone else’s negligence.

The doctrine of contributory negligence states that, if a judge or jury concludes that a plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the incident that caused the plaintiff’s injury, the plaintiff is completely precluded from recovering damages. Few states in the U.S. retain this doctrine. Most apply the doctrine of “comparative negligence,” which reduces a plaintiff’s recovery in an amount proportional to the plaintiff’s own fault. For example, if a jury concludes that a plaintiff was twenty-five percent at fault, and that the plaintiff’s damages total $100,000, the defendant would only be obligated to pay $75,000. Comparative negligence is far more amenable to plaintiffs, considering that a plaintiff who is responsible for one percent of an accident would be precluded from recovery under contributory negligence.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment for State Farm as to Bryan. However, with regard to his wife, Denise Bryan, and their two children, the court reversed the trial court. The court held that, since the New York court entered no findings of fault against Denise Bryan and the children, the negligence of the “phantom driver” could entitle them to damages under Maryland law.

The Maryland accident injury lawyers at Lebowitz & Mzhen are skilled at pursuing justice for people injured in automobile accidents on Maryland roads. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

Web Resources:

Opinion (PDF), Bryan, et al v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, June 7, 2012
Negligence Systems: Contributory Negligence, Comparative Fault, and Joint and Several Liability (PDF), Maryland Department of Legislative Services, Office of Policy Analysis, January 2004

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Paralyzed Construction Worker Receives One of the Largest Workers’ Compensation Settlements in History After a Long Fight, Maryland Accident Law Blog, February 13, 2012
Maryland Says Allstate Must Repay $17.5 Million To More Than 20,000 Auto Insurance Policy Holders, Maryland Accident Law Blog, October 26, 2006

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