Workers’ compensation benefits are meant to provide benefits to injured workers in exchange for giving up the right to file a suit against their employer in court. The rule that recipients of workers’ compensation benefits cannot seek compensation elsewhere is known as the “exclusivity rule.” This means that in general, Maryland accident victims injured at work cannot file suit against their employers. However, there are some exceptions to the rule. Under Maryland law, if an employee is injured or killed because the employer had the deliberate intent to injure or kill the employee, the employee may still bring a claim for damages against the employer. In the event of an employee’s death in such a case, the employee’s surviving spouse, child, or dependent may bring a claim against the employer.

A state supreme court recently considered such a case in which the plaintiff argued that his claim fell under the deliberate injury exception to the exclusivity rule. The plaintiff was working on a commercial construction project. Workers used a crane to drill a 130-foot auger into the ground and were attempting to free the auger from hardening grout after prematurely starting to secure it. After unsuccessful attempts to free the auger, a supervisor ordered the crew to continue to try to free it by rocking it while pressuring the crane’s hoist cable. Eventually, the crane collapsed, causing the plaintiff’s leg to be crushed, requiring it to be amputated.

The plaintiff applied for and received workers’ compensation benefits. After receiving the workers’ compensation benefits, the plaintiff sued the employer for negligence and gross negligence. The plaintiff argued that despite receiving workers’ compensation benefits, the suit was permitted under a state law that allowed for a suit in cases where a defendant has a specific intent to injure the plaintiff. A jury found in the plaintiff’s favor. However, the state’s supreme court reversed the decision, finding the accident did not meet the exception under state law because it did not amount to a “genuine intentional injury.” The court explained that although there was evidence the supervisor deliberately ignored the risk of a collapse of the crane, there was no evidence that the supervisor believed the equipment would break and collapse, and that it would collapse on top of the plaintiff, who was standing beyond the construction barricade. Therefore, the court found insufficient evidence that the supervisor intended to injure the plaintiff, and the court rendered judgment for the employer.

Negligent entrustment is defined under Maryland law as supplying a “chattel” directly or through a third person for another person’s use who the supplier knows or should know will use it in a way that involves an unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others. The supplier is subject to liability for the physical harm resulting from the supplier’s negligent entrustment. In short, the supplier may be held liable because the supplier is or should be aware of the danger of entrusting the chattel to someone and aware of the foreseeability of harm.

A “chattel” is defined as personal property (not real property) that can be moved or transferred. Under Maryland law, the elements of negligent entrustment are: (1) the supplier makes available a chattel to another person; (2) the supplier knows or should have known the receiver is likely to use the chattel in a manner involving risk of physical harm to others, and; (3) the supplier should expect others to be put in danger by its use. Maryland courts have explained that the supplier may need to inquire further in some cases, and the supplier may be liable in cases where the supplier failed to make a reasonable investigation.

Court Considers Viability of Negligent Entrustment Claim Where Employer is Vicariously Liable

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

Under Maryland law, an insurance policy is governed by general contract principles and interpretation. In Maryland insurance disputes, courts are supposed to interpret the contract based on the parties’ intentions when the contract was drafted, and the contract must be considered a whole. In addition, the insurer has the burden to prove an exclusion from coverage.

Insurers are bound by the actions and representations of their agents. If an agent is an actual agent of an insurer, the agent is subject to the insurer’s right of control, the agent has a duty to act for the insurer’s benefit, and the agent holds the power to alter the legal relations of the insurer. In some cases, insurers can also be bound under the apparent-agency theory. In this situation, the insured must show that the insurer led him to believe that the apparent agent was an actual agent of the insurer, the belief was reasonable, and the insured relied upon the apparent agency.

In a recent case, one court considered whether a couple could succeed on a theory of apparent agency after they continued to make payments on their expired policy to who they believed was an agent of the insured. In that case, the insured couple purchased an insurance policy for a period of one year. The couple met with an insurance agent to purchase the policy and paid the policy premium to the agent. Such a payment was permitted as it fell under an “agency bill policy.” The couple continued to make payments on the policy to the agent rather than to the insurer directly. After the first year of the policy, the policy was eligible for renewal as a “direct bill policy,” which meant that the couple was supposed to make payments directly to the insurer to renew and continue coverage under the policy. The couple claimed it did not receive notice reflecting the cancellation and notice of the new policy. The couple continued to make payments directly to the insurance agent after the expiration of the initial one-year period, and the insurer never received the payments to renew and continue the policy.

In Maryland injury cases based on a claim of strict liability, a defendant may claim that the plaintiff was also at fault for their injuries, raising the issue of contributory negligence. Maryland is among a small minority of states that follow the doctrine of contributory negligence, meaning that a plaintiff cannot recover if he is found to be even partially at fault.

Under Maryland law, contributory negligence of the consumer is not a defense in strict liability cases if the consumer’s negligence involves solely a failure to discover the product’s defect or to protect themselves from the possibility of such a defect. However, if the consumer’s contributory negligence concerns voluntarily and unreasonably confronting a known danger, that is a defense to strict liability.

Many other states apply the doctrine of comparative negligence, generally meaning that a plaintiff’s damages are reduced by his proportion of fault. In that case, a plaintiff could have his damages reduced by his portion of fault, even if a strict liability case. In a recent case before one state’s supreme court, the court upheld such an award. In that case, the plaintiff was seriously injured in a crash after the front brake on his motorcycle failed. He sued Suzuki, the manufacturer and designer of the motorcycle, claiming that his injuries were caused by a design defect in the front master brake cylinder. Suzuki had issued a recall warning about a safety defect in the front brake master cylinder, and reportedly had known about the issue since well before the plaintiff’s accident. However, the plaintiff failed to replace the brake fluid every two years, and he had not done so for eight years.

There are instances where a Maryland injury victim has a condition that may increase the severity of damages after an accident. The law frequently refers to these individuals as “eggshell plaintiffs.” The colloquial term “eggshell plaintiff” derives from comparing a person with a typical skull to one with a fragile skull. The theory being that if a defendant causes injuries to a plaintiff with an “eggshell” skull, the defendant would still be liable, even though the plaintiff’s skull was especially vulnerable, compared to that of the average population. In essence, these individuals possess an underlying or complicating health condition that makes a recovery from an accident more difficult.

In many cases, these plaintiffs suffer more significant injuries and damages. However, under Maryland law, a defendant must take the plaintiff or injury victim as they find them. The at-fault party is liable for whatever harm they cause, regardless of what the plaintiff suffered from before the act. Although the law requires defendants to “take plaintiffs as they are,” insurance companies continue to deny claims, often arguing that the accident victim’s injuries are related to a pre-existing condition and not the triggering event. Despite insurance companies’ reluctance to adopt this idea, this principle applies to victims with pre-existing conditions, as well.

For example, a recent national news report described an incident where a teen died after COVID-19 complicated his car accident recovery. According to reports, the 17-year-old suffered multiple fractures and other injuries in a car accident. However, medical reports indicate that the teenager also tested positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus. The virus left the teenager with weakness in his lungs, which prevented him from fully recovering from the car accident. Although details of the crash are still under investigation, doctors indicated that the teenager succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the car accident.

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.

Recently, the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided a case concerning non-party negligence in a Maryland medical malpractice case. Maryland state law allows those injured by a doctor or other health care professional’s negligence to file a medical malpractice suit against the negligent party to recover for their injuries. Sometimes, when defending against that claim, the defendant will attempt to argue that they were not negligent, but that someone else—a non-party in the case—was negligent, and they caused the injuries.

The recent case provides such an example. According to the court’s written opinion, the plaintiff was found to have a renal tumor in his kidney and an adjacent enlarged lymph node. His urologist removed the cancerous kidney, but did not remove the lymph node because it was thought that it could not be removed safely. The plaintiff’s oncologist also did not think the lymph node could be removed, even though it was likely cancerous. The oncologist treated the plaintiff with a chemotherapy drug instead for several years, and the lymph node shrunk (confirming it was cancerous). During this treatment, a radiologist interpreted various scans of the plaintiff’s lymph node, but never noted any issue of enlargement. However, the original radiologist and another radiologist did note that the scans of the lymph node were not always performed with the best technology, meaning sometimes they were difficult to interpret.

Tragically, it turns out that the lymph node—still cancerous—had increased in size over the years. At this point, it was definitely too big to remove, and the plaintiff underwent cancer treatment. The plaintiff filed suit against the radiologists, alleging that they failed to alert his oncologist of the lymph node’s growth. Had they done so, the plaintiff argues, the oncologist could have removed it safely before it grew too large.

The state-created danger theory imposes liability on a governmental entity for acts committed by a private actor. It generally applies in situations where the state increases the risk of harm to an individual through the state’s affirmative acts. Although courts have considered the doctrine in Maryland accident cases, Maryland had not adopted the state-created danger theory as a basis for recovery for violations under the state’s constitution. In general, under Maryland law, a private party does not have a duty to control a third party’s conduct to prevent harm to another person. However, a private party may have a duty when there is a special relationship between the private party and the third party or between the private party and the injured person. Whether a special relationship exists is determined on a case-by-case basis.

A federal appeals court recently considered the doctrine in a case involving three family members who died in a fire after the fire department failed to go look for them. According to the court’s opinion, the woman was in her apartment with her son and her stepfather and called 911 when they saw their apartment building was on fire. An operator from the fire department told her to stay inside the apartment and that help was on the way. The firefighters drove to the wrong location, and when they did arrive at the scene, they were never told that the family was inside, and no one searched for them. The three family members remained inside and died from smoke inhalation. No one looked for them until days later, when the firefighters found their bodies inside the apartment.

The estates of three family members sued the city and two fire department employees. The estates claimed that the state-created danger doctrine applied because the dispatcher told them to close themselves in their room, assured them that firefighters were on their way, and then failed to communicate the family’s presence or location to the firefighters. The court explained that the doctrine requires that there be, 1.) a foreseeable and fairly direct harm, 2.) an action that shocks the conscience, 3.) a relationship with the state that makes the plaintiff a foreseeable victim, and 4.) an affirmative use of state authority that created a danger or made others more vulnerable. The court held that the doctrine was inapplicable because there was it was not an affirmative act and because the conduct did not “shock the conscience.” It held that the dispatcher did not act affirmatively because the dispatcher only failed to communicate the family’s location to the firefighters, and the operator’s failure to communicate the family’s location was not sufficient to “shock the conscience,” in part, because it was not an intentional act.

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