The death of contributory negligence in Maryland?

A lawsuit that was filed recently because a soccer goal collapsed on a Howard County practice field could cause Maryland courts to change more than 150 years of personal injury law. If the case goes a certain way, this could mean that plaintiffs have a greater chance of recovering damages in personal injury lawsuits.

Facts of lawsuit

In 2008, Kyle Coleman attended soccer practice at a middle school in Fulton, Maryland. While warming up, Coleman grabbed the soccer goal's crossbar while he was going after a ball. However, this caused the goal, which was unanchored, to fall on top of him. The crossbar smashed into his face, crushing the bones around his eye. To repair his injuries, Coleman had to undergo several surgeries to place three titanium plates in his head.

Coleman sued the association that was in charge of the soccer practice, claiming that it was to blame for his injures. Coleman claimed that his injuries occurred because the association negligently failed to anchor the goal. At the trial, the jury agreed with Coleman that the association was responsible for his injuries, but did not award any damages because of a legal principle called contributory negligence. In other words, Coleman was partially responsible for his own injuries, so he could not recover any damages under the law. The jury had based part of its decision on defense evidence that suggested that Coleman had smoked marijuana before the practice.

Is contributory negligence dead?

Coleman appealed the decision to the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court will decide if the legal principle of contributory negligence will continue to dictate the recovery of damages in Maryland negligence lawsuits-everything from motor vehicle accidents to slip-and-fall injuries.

Maryland is one of only four states (plus the District of Columbia) that still recognizes the contributory negligence. It has been law since it was adopted in an 1847 decision. Under contributory negligence principles, if a jury finds that a plaintiff in a lawsuit is the least bit at fault for his or her own injures, he or she is barred from recovering damages.

Supporters of the law say that contributory negligence should be kept in place because it protects against frivolous lawsuits. However, opponents claim that the law is harsh and outdated, and that it favors the defendant. To illustrate, under the law, a plaintiff who is only slightly at fault for his or her injuries could be barred from recovering from a defendant who is overwhelmingly at fault.

If the Maryland Court of Appeals agrees to put an end to contributory negligence, it could dramatically improve the chances of recovery for plaintiffs. However, no alternative has been proposed.

If the Maryland Court of Appeals decides to adopt the law followed by the majority of states, it could adopt a legal principle called comparative negligence. Under this principle, a plaintiff who is partially at fault for his or her own injuries still could recover damages. However, the maximum amount of damages that the plaintiff can recover is reduced by the percentage that he or she is at fault. Additionally, it is the law in most comparative negligence states that a plaintiff who is more than 50 percent at fault for his or her own injuries cannot recover any damages.

The court has yet to make a decision in the case, so it is unclear how the law may change (if it does at all). However, if you are injured by someone else's negligence in the meantime, you should not be discouraged to seek the counsel of a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer. An attorney can consider your particular situation and advise you of your right to recovery.