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.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fourth Circuit Affirms Virginia's Prohibited Stacking of Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage

             In Dooley v. Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the district court erred in holding that where an insurance policy fails to specify any particular amount of uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (UM/UIM coverage) afforded, an insured motorist is prohibited by his insurance policy from “stacking” or combining the UM/UIM coverage for each insured vehicle. 
             On appeal, Ronnie Steve Dooley, the plaintiff and insured motorist, argued that the insurance policy’s omission of any stated amount of UM/UIM coverage amounted to an ambiguity, and, therefore, the anti-stacking provision should be construed against Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (Hartford), the insurance company, and in his favor. 
              In 2003 Dooley obtained an automobile insurance policy with Hartford.  At the time he had two vehicles insured.  In 2004 he added a third vehicle.   Dooley paid separate premiums for liability and UM/UIM coverage for each of these three vehicles and renewed the policy annually for three years without altering his coverage.  Dooley again renewed his policy in November 2008 (the 2008 policy). 
             While the 2008 policy was in effect Dooley sustained serious bodily injury when his vehicle was struck by another vehicle driven by Wilmer Phillips.  Dooley’s injuries exceeded the liability coverage provided by Phillips’ automobile insurance policy.  In light of this, Dooley argued that Phillips was an underinsured motorist within the meaning of Virginia Code Section 38.2-2206(B), and, as such, Dooley sought payment from his own insurance company, Hartford, based on the UM/UIM coverage provided in the 2008 policy.  Although the declarations section of the 2008 policy was silent with respect to UM/UIM coverage, this section expressly provided general liability coverage of $100,000 per person for each covered vehicle.
              Hartford acknowledge that it was obligated under Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(A) to provide UM/UIM coverage "equal" to the policy’s general liability limits.  However, Hartford argued that its policy limited UM/UIM coverage for each person to $100,000. 
               Thus, the parties’ dispute was over whether the anti-stacking clause prevented Dooley from stacking or combining the $100,000 per person limit under his UM/UIM coverage for each of his three insured vehicles. 

               Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit concluded that because Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(A) mandates that UM/UIM coverage "shall equal" the general liability coverage, by operation of law Dooley was provided an equal amount of UM/UIM coverage under his policy.  Therefore, the anti-stacking provision in Dooley’s policy unambiguously prohibits stacking of UM/UIM coverage.  Thus, the district court did not err when it granted summary judgment in favor of Hartford.  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

New Rules Regarding Personal Information in Court Files

In continuing efforts to protect personal information, a new Rule will become effective July 1, 2013. Maryland Rule 1-322.10 instructs attorneys or other persons who file documents with a court to keep unnecessary personal identifier information out of the court records.  An exception is noted where there is a legal obligation to include such information. Any violation of this Rule may result in the document being stricken.

Pursuant to Rule 1-322.1(a), the following personal identifier information shall not be included in any electronic or paper filing with a court:

(1) an individual’s Social Security number, taxpayer identification number, or date of birth; or
(2) the numeric or alphabetic characters of a financial or medical account identifier.

It is important to note that Rule 1-322.10 also sets forth alternatives of when it is necessary to include personal identifier information.   
Anyone filing case records with the court should also remember that pursuant to Rule 16-1010(a) the filer must notify the custodian if there is confidential information included in that record. The notification should specifically inform the clerk what information is confidential. 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Proposed Baltimore City Hiring Ordinance

             On Monday May 13, the Baltimore City Council unanimously approved a bill designed to promote hiring within the city.  The proposed ordinance requires any company undertaking a city contract worth $300,000 or greater, and any project receiving more than $5 million, to employ at least 51 percent of its work force from Baltimore City.  Businesses that fail to comply with the hiring mandate would face a one-year ban on receiving city contracts and a $500 fine.  Waivers could be obtained for companies who are located and perform the contracts outside the city, and for companies that are unable to find enough skilled residents despite a good faith effort on the part of the company to hire within the city.

 The bill’s proponent, City Council President Jack C. Young, cites Baltimore’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate as the rationale for the bill.  Young points to cities, such as Boston and San Francisco, that have implemented similar ordinances as models that Baltimore should follow.  Local civic organizations, including the Job Opportunities Task Force, Associated Black Charities, and the Baltimore Jewish Council, have voiced their support for the bill.

             The legislation has been criticized by the city’s legal department for being unconstitutional.  In memos to the city council, the city solicitor cites federal case law that suggests the bill would violate the Privileges and Immunities clause for discriminating against citizens of another state.  Other critics claim that comparisons to the Boston and San Francisco ordinances are misplaced because Baltimore’s ordinance is much more sweeping.  Critics further opine that the success of the San Francisco ordinance is undetermined because the law is so new, and the Boston ordinance has not lived up to expectations.

            In response to bill’s critics, proponents claim the constitutionality of the bill is uncertain because neither the Boston nor the San Francisco ordinance have been challenged.  Furthermore, the failed expectations of the Boston ordinance was due to lax enforcement.  Regarding the sweeping nature of the proposed legislation, proponents claim the bill is more akin to an East Palo Alto, CA ordinance, which was passed in 2000 and has not been held unconstitutional.

            Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake has taken steps in the past to encourage contractors to hire within the city.  She is reserving her decision to sign or veto the bill until she has seen a final version or the proposed ordinance.