Thursday, June 27, 2013

Contributory Negligence Proper for Jury to Decide

In Willis v. Ford, No. 256 (September Term 2102), the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland affirmed the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County’s denial of the Defendant’s motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. In doing so, the Court of Special Appeals held that the issue of contributory negligence was a proper issue for the jury to determine where there was more than one reasonable inference the jury could have made concerning contributory negligence.  The court further concluded that the jury’s verdict did not go against the weight of the evidence provided at trial, and that the facts of the case did not necessitate an “Acts in Emergencies” jury instruction.
The case arose from a rear end collision between two vehicles that occurred on May 8, 2010 at approximately 1:30 a.m.  Prior to the accident, the Plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. Ford, were stopped at a traffic signal in a travel lane on a busy highway.  Mr. Ford’s car stalled when the light turned green.  Rather than exit the vehicle, Mr. Ford made several attempts to start the car again.  Around the same time, the Defendant, Ms. Willis, was travelling behind an SUV on the same highway and in the same lane as the Ford’s stalled vehicle.  As Willis approached the intersection, the SUV slammed on its brakes and swerved to an adjacent lane.  As a result, Willis could not see the Ford’s vehicle and could not avoid the collision.
The Fords sued Willis for negligence in September 2010.  The case went to trial in January 2012 resulting in a jury verdict of over $15,000 for the Fords.  Willis filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.  After the Circuit Court denied both her motions, Willis noted an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals.
On appeal, Willis first argued that the Fords were contributorily negligent as a matter of law, and that the Circuit Court erred in not granting her motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.  In support of her argument, Willis cited Martin v. Sweeney, 207 Md. 543 (1955), which held that a driver who skidded onto a grass median and reentered the roadway where he stopped his vehicle was guilty of contributory negligence.   The Martin court relied on the proposition that contributory negligence, as a matter of law, may exist where an individual is harmed because: (1) the individual leaves a place of safety to venture into a place of danger; or (2) where the individual remains in a place of danger with time and the physical ability to leave.
The Court of Special Appeals found Willis’ argument unpersuasive because the Fords were faced with two options that carried inherent risk: remain in the vehicle hoping to restart it, or exit the vehicle and cross a dimly lit and busy lane of highway traffic.  Furthermore, the court found that the evidence at trial was not against the weight of the verdict.  The court relied on the fact that the Fords were driving a large, white vehicle with it emergency lights flashing, and that witnesses observed other vehicles safely maneuver around the Fords stalled car.  The court stated it was imperative for the trial court to submit the question of contributory negligence for the jury to decide, and not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to do so.

Willis’ second argument was that a new trial should have been granted because the trial court failed to give an “Acts in Emergencies” jury instruction.  Willis argued that she was faced with a sudden emergency where the only reasonable alternative was to collide with the Ford’s vehicle.  The Court of Special Appeals disagreed noting that Willis’ own testimony established that she was not required to choose between alternatives, but was simply unable to act or make a choice before the accident occurred.  As such, the trial court did not err in dismissing Willis’ post-trial motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

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