Maryland Supreme Court Reconsiders Contributory Negligence Doctrine

(Written for a Justia client, September 2012. Used with permission.)

An injury caused by a collapsed soccer goal has led the Maryland Supreme Court to reconsider the state’s longstanding doctrine of contributory negligence. Four states and the District of Columbia still follow this doctrine, which holds that plaintiffs may not recover damages in a lawsuit if their own negligence contributed to the accident or loss in any way, no matter how minimal. In Coleman v. Soccer Assoc. of Columbia, et al (Md., Sept. Term 2012, No. 9), the state Supreme Court is considering whether it should follow most U.S. states in adopting the doctrine of comparative negligence, which allows a plaintiff to recover, but reduces damages based on an apportionment of the plaintiff’s negligence.

Kyle Coleman, twenty years old at the time, was attending a soccer practice at Lime-Kiln Middle School in Fulton, Maryland in 2008. As he went to retrieve a ball from the goal, he grabbed the crossbar. This apparently caused the crossbar to collapse, hitting Coleman in the face and crushing several ocular bones. He now has three titanium plates in his skull.

Coleman sued the Soccer Association of Columbia, which was responsible for the practice where his injury occurred. He alleged that it breached its duty to maintain the goal properly. A jury found that the association was negligent in failing to secure the goal, but it also found that Coleman was partly negligent. The contributory negligence doctrine therefore barred Coleman from relief.

On appeal, Coleman argued that the contributory negligence doctrine, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century, is unjust. The doctrine bars a plaintiff from recovering any damages, even if the plaintiff’s negligence was miniscule in comparison to that of the defendant. The Maryland Supreme Court first adopted the doctrine in an 1847 case, Irwin v. Sprigg, and state courts have affirmed it on numerous occasions since then. In one case, Sutton v. Baltimore, the Court of Appeals ruled against a pedestrian who, while watching for cracks in a sidewalk, tripped on a broken tree box protruding onto the sidewalk and broke his leg. The court found that, regardless of the city’s negligence in failing to maintain the tree box, the plaintiff’s negligence in failing to “use common and ordinary caution” barred him from any recovery of damages.

Coleman argues that comparative negligence, which allows a court to apportion negligence between a plaintiff and defendant and reduce a plaintiff’s damages accordingly, is more just. This is the doctrine followed by forty-six states. If the jury concluded, for example, that Coleman’s negligence accounted for forty percent of the accident, it could reduce his damage award by forty percent.

The oral argument before the Maryland Supreme Court on September 10, 2012, lasted two hours. The court allowed third parties to present arguments, and a wide array of organizations presented in support of the soccer association. The U.S. and Maryland Chambers of Commerce and the American Medical Association filed amicus briefs making many familiar arguments, such as rising insurance premiums and an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits if the court abandons contributory negligence. If the court rules in Coleman’s favor, though, it certainly will have a far-reaching and, we believe, positive impact on Maryland personal injury law.

© David C. Wells 2014