By Jason Bramwell
The Maryland Court of Appeals on July 9 voted five to two against changing the state's 166-year-old contributory negligence doctrine, which prevents people from collecting damages in a lawsuit if they contributed to their injuries in any way.
According to a blog post on July 10 by Bill Sheridan, chief communications officer for the Maryland Association of CPAs (MACPA), Maryland CPAs have long opposed attempts to replace contributory negligence with "comparative fault" legislation that would allow plaintiffs who have a disproportionate amount of fault to collect as part of a lawsuit.
The ruling is in response to a lawsuit filed against the Soccer Association of Columbia by James Coleman, an accomplished soccer player who had volunteered to assist in coaching a team of young soccer players.
According to court documents, during a practice on August 19, 2008, Coleman was retrieving a soccer ball that he had just kicked into a goal when he jumped up and grabbed the goal's crossbar. The goal was not anchored into the ground, and while Coleman was hanging on the crossbar, he fell backward, drawing the weight of the crossbar onto his face.
Coleman suffered multiple severe facial fractures that required surgery, and three titanium plates were placed in his face. Coleman filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Howard County in Maryland against the Soccer Association of Columbia, alleging he was injured by the organization's negligence. The Soccer Association of Columbia asserted the defense of contributory negligence.
During the ensuing trial, the jury concluded that the Soccer Association of Columbia was negligent and its negligence caused Coleman's injuries. However, the jury also found that Coleman was negligent and that his negligence contributed to his own injuries. Because of the contributory negligence finding, Coleman was denied any recovery.
Coleman filed and was granted a petition for a writ of certiorari, which orders a lower court to deliver its record in a case so that the higher court may review it. In his petition, Coleman asked whether the Maryland Court of Appeals should retain the standard of contributory negligence as the common law standard governing negligence cases in Maryland.
"Although this court has the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence, we decline to abrogate Maryland's long-established common law principle of contributory negligence", the court ruled.
Reasons Why MACPA Backs the Ruling
According to the MACPA blog, Maryland CPAs agreed with the Court of Appeals' ruling for the following four reasons:
- The contributory negligence standard will keep the lid on insurance premium growth rates.
- It fosters the exercise of due care by all persons.
- As a long-respected doctrine, contributory negligence enhances the predictability of litigation, including its costs.
- Comparative fault would lead to higher premiums for automobile and homeowners' insurance, higher premiums for businesses' general liability and product liability insurance, and higher premiums for professional liability and errors and omissions insurance.
In short, CPAs believe that the increased cost of conducting business and the decreased productivity associated with the comparative fault standard would, in the long run, lead to a loss of jobs, increased liability, and a deterioration of the economic climate in Maryland, Sheridan wrote in his blog.
"Considering that Maryland's General Assembly also has refused to change the doctrine despite repeated attempts to do so, the ruling serves as vindication that contributory negligence is the way to go", Sheridan continued.
Writing for the majority opinion, retired Judge John C. Eldridge stated",For this court to change the common law and abrogate the contributory negligence defense in negligence actions, in the face of the General Assembly's repeated refusal to do so, would be totally inconsistent with the court's long-standing jurisprudence."
MACPA Executive Director Tom Hood called the court's ruling a "major victory."
"Thanks to all of our members who have been part of our association leadership, who have worked as legislative key persons, who have supported our [political action committee], attended CPA Day in Annapolis, and written letters over the years", he said. "And thanks to all of our business coalition partners who stayed the course with us."
Sheridan concluded his blog by writing",Indeed. This is the poster child for political activism by CPAs. If you want to protect your profession, your livelihood, and your clients as well, you need to take a political stand. That's how battles like this are won."