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Marylandís Highest Court Refuses to Judicially Abrogate the Doctrine of Contributory Negligence

Coleman v. Soccer Assín of Columbia
No. 9 (Maryland Court of Appeals, July 9, 2013)

by Elisabeth R. Connell, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In this highly anticipated opinion, authored by Judge Eldridge, the Maryland Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the Circuit Court for Howard County, concluding once again that the court will not judicially abrogate the common law doctrine of contributory negligence. Despite the courtís conclusion that judicial abrogation of this doctrine is well within its power, the same considerations which led the court to this conclusion thirty years ago in Harrison v. Montgomery Cnty. Bd. Of Educ., 295 Md. 442, 444, 456 A.2d 894 (1983), once again led the Court to decide that any change to Marylandís contributory negligence doctrine rests exclusively with the General Assembly.

This action arose from an accident that occurred during a soccer practice in Howard County. The Soccer Association of Columbia hosted the practice, where plaintiff volunteered as an assistant coach. After the plaintiff, 20 years old at the time, kicked a soccer ball into the net, he went to retrieve it, jumping up to grab and hang from the crossbar as he proceeded. The goal had not been anchored to the ground, so Plaintiffís action of putting his weight on the crossbar led the goal to crash down on top of him, causing multiple severe facial fractures. At trial, the Soccer Association of Columbia argued that Plaintiff was contributorily negligent and conflicting testimony was presented about whose responsibility it was to anchor the goal to the ground, who owned the goal, and whether the danger of an unanchored goal falling down as a result of hanging from the crossbar is an open and obvious danger. In the end, the jury concluded that the Soccer Association was negligent, and that such negligence caused Plaintiffís injuries. The jury also concluded, however, that Plaintiff was negligent and that his negligence contributed to his claimed injuries. Because of this finding, Plaintiff was barred from recovery, according to Marylandís common law doctrine of contributory negligence.

Plaintiff filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the trial court denied, and subsequently appealed the verdict to the Court of Special Appeals. Prior to any argument or hearing before the Court of Special Appeals, Plaintiff filed a writ for certiorari to the Court of Appeals, which was granted.

The sole issue presented to the Court in this case was whether the court should retain the standard of contributory negligence as the common law standard governing negligence cases in Maryland. The Court noted that the exact same issue was raised thirty years ago in Harrison, infra.

When Harrison was decided, the Court placed significant emphasis on the fact that the General Assembly had recently considered numerous bills that would have replaced contributory negligence with some form of a comparative negligence scheme, but had not enacted one. At that time, the Court also focused on the fact that any change to the contributory negligence doctrine would necessitate a number of other changes in related laws, such as the last clear chance doctrine, assumption of the risk, joint and several liability, strict liability, and others.

In this case, the Court placed emphasis on both of these facts once again. The Court stated that in the time since Harrison was decided, the General Assembly has considered and failed to pass at least another ten (10) bills that would have abolished or modified the contributory negligence standard. This legislative inaction was considered significant and persuasive evidence of a legislative intent to keep the existing contributory negligence doctrine. The Courtís long-standing jurisprudence has been not to change the common law contrary to the public policy of the state. In light of this history and the General Assemblyís actions, or lack thereof, the Court declined to abrogate the common law doctrine of contributory negligence, as doing so would be contrary to public policy of the state.

Judge Harrell filed a dissenting opinion, joined by former Chief Justice Bell, now retired, in which he called the contributory negligence doctrine a ďdinosaur.Ē Harrell argued that the Court had the power to change this doctrine, and should do so because the courtís responsibility to administer justice carried greater weight than considerations of stare decisis or legislative inaction. Harrell opined that Maryland should adopt a pure comparative fault scheme, so that neither party is unjustly enriched or able to escape liability. Whether the General Assembly will take action in response to this opinion remains to be seen, but it seems likely that if they fail to do so, contributory negligence is here to stay in Maryland.


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