Wednesday, April 25, 2012

When Saying You Were Wrong Makes Sense

             Stipulating to liability in a motor vehicle accident case has its strategic advantages.  Generally, attorneys employ this tactic to keep out evidence of a defendant’s prior moving violations, behavior and actions after the accident and intoxication of the defendant.  The rationale behind this strategy is that by stipulating to liability, evidence regarding these types of matters becomes irrelevant and therefore inadmissible.  If liability is admitted, the only thing left for the jury to decide is the issue of damages (e.g. money). 

          The Court of Special Appeals recently decided a case involving a stipulation of liability in Hendrix v.Burns, et ux.  In Hendrix, the two Defendants admitted liability on the negligence claims asserted against them (negligence against Mr. Burns and negligent entrustment against Mrs. Burns).  The trial court granted Defendants’ motions in limine and precluded Plaintiff from introducing evidence that at the time of the accident Mr. Burns was drunk, had been involved in a road rage incident with another driver, was pursuing that driver when he ran a red light, attempted to flee the scene after the accident and had prior DUI convictions.  The trial court also precluded Plaintiff from introducing evidence that Mrs. Burns knew of these past incidents involving her husband. The jury returned a verdict of $85,000.00 and Plaintiff appealed.  One of the primary issues on appeal was whether or not the trial court erred in granting Defendants’ motions in limine and precluding Plaintiff from introducing certain evidence. 

          One of the arguments advanced by Plaintiff’s counsel was that because of Plaintiff’s 26 years of experience as a 911 operator, she had “a very strong fear” of being hit by a drunk driver and that she suffered great emotional distress, when after the accident, she learned Mr. Burns was drunk and had attempted to flee the scene.  Plaintiff argued that this evidence was relevant evidence in support of her claim for emotional distress. 

             The Court held that the “threshold issue is one of relevancy” and cited to Maryland Rule 5-401 when it defined evidence as relevant if it has “any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.”  The Court ruled that the fact that Mr. Burns was drunk and in a road rage incident at the time of the accident and attempted to flee the scene after the accident, “was not of consequence to the issue of damages.”

            The decision to stipulate to liability must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  When there are factors involving the defendant’s behavior pre or post-accident that would harm the defense of the case, stipulating to liability may be the best way to keep that type of damaging evidence from reaching the jury.

Article contributed by Andy Nichols

Friday, April 6, 2012

Cecil County Jury Returns Defense Verdict

RSRM associate attorney, Andy Nichols, tried a two-day jury trial in the Circuit Court for Cecil County on March 7-8, 2012.  Plaintiff filed suit against the Defendant, a restaurant, alleging she cut herself in Defendant's restroom, when the sink fell from the wall.  Plaintiff alleged that the sink was improperly maintained and/or installed.

After listening to testimony from several witnesses, including a plumber retained by Defendant, the jury, after thirteen (13) minutes of deliberation, returned a verdict in favor of the Defendant, finding that there was no evidence of negligence on Defendant's part.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Local Government Torts Claim Act

The Local Government Tort Claims Act (“Act”) provides a strong tool for defending claims brought against governmental entities and agencies. The Act is far broader than its name implies, affecting such entities as The Maryland National - Capital Park and Planning Commission, The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, certain community colleges, county public libraries and housing authorities.

The Act provides a road map for the prosecution and defense of claims against the entities it encompasses. A principal purpose of the Act was the provision of limitations on liability to $200,000.00 per individual claim and $500,000.00 per occurrence. Despite the title of the Act, Maryland's highest court has held that these limitations DO NOT apply to the local government entity as such, but only to INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEES of the entity. Thus, whenever a tort was committed by a local government employee, that individual was protected by the liability limitations, but the local government entity was not. It didn't take the plaintiff's bar very long to figure out who to target in these types of cases, nor did it take the state legislature very long to FIX the problem with a statute designed to have retroactive application. Of course, the same court that found the Local Government Tort Claims Act inapplicable to local governments ruled retroactive application of the newly clarified law illegal. 

            There is, however, one portion of the act that remains viable and available as a defense - the notice requirement. The Act specifies that an action may not be brought against a local government entity unless written notice of the time, place and cause of an injury is personally delivered or sent via certified mail to an officer of the local government entity within one hundred and eighty (180) days of the injury. The courts have ruled that substantial compliance with the statute may be sufficient where the same information is transmitted via regular mail in such a fashion as to allow the defendant to investigate the circumstances of the alleged injury despite the absence of certified mail service or delivery to an actual officer.

            There is also an escape clause in the Act if the plaintiff can establish good cause for delay and the defendant is not able to show prejudice as a consequence of the delay. The leading case construing the statute is Rios v Montgomery County 386 Md 104, 872 A2d 1(2005).In Rios, suit was brought by an infant plaintiff against a county employee doctor for a birth injury suffered ten years earlier. The Court of Appeals found that the statute did not violate state or federal constitutional principles and affirmed a lower court's grant of summary judgment for failure to comply with the notice requirement despite the plaintiff's infancy and the fact that the plaintiff's mother was a Bolivian immigrant who did not speak English. The Court was careful to point out that review was on an abuse of discretion basis, implying it would have affirmed even if the trial court had come to a different conclusion on the issue of good cause for delay.

            Attorneys at RSRM have been successful in obtaining summary judgment in numerous cases based upon a plaintiff’s failure to comply with the notice requirement contained in the Act.  A plaintiff’s compliance, or failure to comply with the notice requirement, should be one of the first things reviewed in any case where the Act applies.    

Article contributed by Dennis Whelley