Thursday, May 10, 2012

No More Free Bites

On April 26, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals, filed an opinion in Tracey v. Solesky, which overturned several hundred years of legal precedent, even law that came to Maryland from England, regarding liability for attacks by dogs.

The Court of Appeals found that pit bull or pit bull mixed dog owners, or other persons who have the right to control a dog’s presence on the property (including LANDLORDS) are strictly liable for the injuries to an innocent party. This changes the law in Maryland in three respects: 1) a plaintiff in a dog bite case no longer has to show that the dog is dangerous (i.e. the “one free bite rule” has been eliminated); 2) the defendant(s) are STRICTLY liable for a plaintiff’s injuries, meaning that there are very limited liability defenses to a dog bite case, and 3) that landlords are now liable for injuries, if they failed to prohibit pit bull breeds on their premises and they know or should have known that a pit bull was on their premises.

This opinion will have an immediate impact on insurance companies. No longer can an owner of a pit bull or pit bull mix argue that the dog has never bitten anyone in the past. Typically, an insurance company could drop that dog from insurance coverage at that point, but that is no longer the case. This change in the law also applies to landlords, commercial or residential.

Moving forward, it is important for insurance companies to understand the risks inherent in insuring a home, a commercial property, a commercial landlord or a residential landlord if a pit bull or pit bull mix is allowed on the premises. ANY injuries caused by that dog are, more than likely, going to be the responsibility of the insurance company.

Just remember, a “first bite” is no longer a “first bite” if it comes from a pit bull or a pit bull mix.

Article contributed by Derrick Dye

UM and/or UIM Coverage is Not Required Under an Umbrella Policy

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently issued an opinion in Stickley v. State Farm, holding that Section 19-509.1 of the Insurance Article merely permits, rather than requires, insurers to offer uninsured motorist coverage in their umbrella policies.
The case arose when Plaintiff and her husband were involved in an automobile accident. Plaintiff’s husband was killed as a result of the collision, and although she survived, Plaintiff suffered serious injuries. At the time, the Plaintiff had a number of insurance policies with State Farm and its subsidiaries, including a motor vehicle liability policy with limits for bodily injury of $100,000/$300,000 and a Personal Liability Umbrella Policy, which had limits of $2,000,000 for personal liability and $2,000,000 for UM and UIM coverage. As the accident was attributable to Plaintiff’s husband, Plaintiff filed claims with State Farm for the injuries she suffered. After Plaintiff exhausted the liability policy limit of $100,000, State Farm denied her UIM claim under the umbrella policy based on a “household exclusion” clause in the agreement, which excluded coverage for bodily injuries sustained by household members.

After this denial, Plaintiff filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment of coverage. Her legal theory was based on Section 19-504 of the Insurance Article, which states that when liability coverage under a policy for a private motor vehicle exceeds the state minimums ($30,000.00/$60,000.00) an insurer has to offer to the first named insured “insurance liability coverage for claims made by a family member in the same amount as the liability coverage for claims made by a nonfamily member under the policy.”  Relying on this language, Plainitff asserted that the household exclusion in her umbrella policy was void and that State Farm was required to offer coverage under the umbrella policy.

The circuit court disagreed and found that State Farm had satisfied the requirements of Section 19-504.1 when it provided Mrs. Stickley with the same amount of coverage pursuant to primary policy as it would provide a non-family member. In reaching this conclusion, the Circuit Court explained that an umbrella policy is not a “private passenger motor vehicle liability insurance policy” and thus is not subject to the requirements of Section 19-504.1.

On review, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment and explained that in the period since the General Assembly adopted the compulsory automobile insurance statutes and articulated Maryland public policy of guaranteeing minimum insurance coverage levels, the Court of Appeals has repeatedly held and reaffirmed the principle that “household exclusion” clauses are only valid where the exclusion is above the statutory minimum automobile liability insurance amounts.  In 2004, the General Assembly adopted Section 19-504.1 to ensure that, when getting a private car insurance policy with coverage limits over the statutory minimum, insured persons would have a right to purchase that policy without a household exclusion. The Court referenced the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of similarly worded statutes relating to uninsured motorist coverage, where the court held that insurers who provide excess policies may, but are not required to, offer uninsured motorist coverage. This led the Court to conclude that Section 19-504.1 does not apply to insurers providing excess or umbrella policies for their customers.

Article contributed by Andy Nichols

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Summary Judgments Granted for Failure to Comply with Notice Requirements

Dennis Whelley, the chair of RSRM’s lead paint litigation department, has been able to prevail on motions for summary judgment on behalf of a local government entity filed in twelve separate cases in Baltimore City Circuit Court.  The basis of each motion has been the plaintiff's failure to comply with a provision of the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which requires a plaintiff to provide proper notice of the time, place and cause of injury, to a corporate officer within 180 days of the alleged injury.

Baltimore City Jury Returns Defense Verdict in Less Than Four Minutes

RSRM Associate James Buck tried a one-day jury trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.  Plaintiff filed suit alleging negligence against the Defendant and claimed the Defendant’s alleged negligence was the proximate cause of the motor-vehicle accident. 

James was able to highlight evidence showing that the Plaintiff had, in fact, not only been involved in upwards of ten (10) previous automobile accident in the past fifteen (15) years, but that in each case, the Plaintiff had made a claim for injuries, mostly to the neck and back.  Despite these many prior accidents and injuries, the Plaintiff’s discovery responses disclosed only 2 other accidents, one prior and one subsequent. 

After less than four (4) minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Defendant.

Baltimore City Jury Returns Defense Verdict

   RSRM Associate, Derrick H. Dye, tried a two-day jury trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Defending the case on liability and damages, Derrick successfully argued a Motion in Limine that excluded evidence of ongoing or future medical treatment or damages due to Plaintiff’s failure to provide any expert opinions supporting such a claim.
     After twenty-eight (28) minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Defendant, finding that Defendant was not negligent in causing the accident.