Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jury Returns Defense Verdict in Multi-Vehicle Collision

RSRM Partner James Andersen secured a defense verdict in a jury trial beginning on March 24, 2014 in Cecil County, Maryland.  Three plaintiffs sued multiple vehicle operators for negligence in a multi-vehicle accident that occurred on a bridge with black ice in late November, 2008.  Mr. Andersen defended the driver directly behind the plaintiffs’ vehicle and, therefore, was the lead defense attorney in cross-examining Plaintiffs and calling witnesses. 

Mr. Andersen vigorously argued that the incident was an unavoidable accident due to unknown treacherous road conditions that formed shortly before the accident.  In proving this theory, Mr. Andersen argued that none of the drivers had any difficulty driving earlier that evening until they reached the bridge.  Through his zealous advocacy Mr. Andersen successfully elicited testimony from the plaintiff driver that she applied her brakes on the middle of the bridge and slid sideways even though the nearest vehicles in front of her were already leaving the bridge.  This defense was further strengthened as the investigating officer called to the accident scene slid somewhat when he came onto the bridge and applied his brakes.  

After a mere 25 minutes the jury returned with a defense verdict for all defendants on the basis that as Mr. Andersen argued, this was an unavoidable accident. 

Court of Special Appeals Addresses Expiration of Judgments

           In State v. Buckingham, 214 Md. App. 672, 78 A.3d 909 (2013), the Court of Special Appeals addressed whether Maryland Rule 2-625 implements the limitations period found in Courts and Judicial Proceedings Section 5-102, such that, a judgment held by the State does not extinguish even where it is not renewed by the State after a period of twelve years.
The case arose from a judgment in the form of a “notice of lien” entered on March 27, 1998 by the Circuit Court for Baltimore County in favor of the State of Maryland against Russell Buckingham, a state lottery agent. Id. at 673, 78 A.3d at 910. The lien, totaling $7,078.00 plus interest, reflected proceeds from the sale of lottery tickets that Buckingham failed to remit to the State, inclusive of court costs, a service charge, and penalties. Id. Although the judgment in the form of a notice of lien had never been renewed, on September 13, 2013, more than twelve years later, it was “indexed” in favor of the Central Collection Unit of the Maryland Department of Budget and Management on behalf of the State. Id. at 674-75, 78 A.3d at 910-11. The State also obtained a writ which it served upon Buckingham’s employer garnishing his wages in the amount of $14,574.00, for the unremitted sale of lottery tickets plus interest, court costs, and attorney fees. Id. at 675, 78 A.3d at 911. A year later, the State obtained a second writ garnishing Buckingham’s wages for $15,219.00, reflecting the accrual of additional interest since the first writ. Id.
            After the entry of the second writ, Buckingham moved to have the court declare the March 27, 1998 judgment against him null and void and to quash the two writs, arguing that the judgment had expired since it had not been renewed and more than twelve years had elapsed since its entry. Pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-625 “[a] money judgment expires 12 years from the date of entry or most recent renewal […] [a]t any time before expiration of the judgment, the judgment holder may file a notice of renewal and the clerk shall enter the judgment renewed.” Id.; see also Md. Rule 2-625. The lower court ruled in favor of Buckingham on grounds that the judgment had expired.  The State filed a Motion for Reconsideration, which was denied, and then noted its appeal. Id. at 675, 78 A.3d at 911. On appeal, the State argued that it is subject to the limitations period in the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article Section 5-102, which expressly exempts the State from the requirement that an action on a judgment be filed within twelve years from the date that the cause of action accrues. Id.
The Court of Special Appeals looked to statutory interpretation, focusing on the legislative intent behind the statute’s enactment. Id. at 677, 78 A.3d at 912. In analyzing the Legislature’s intent, the Court considered principles of sovereign immunity under which state statutes of limitations do not apply to the State unless a state statute provides otherwise. Id. ( citing Cent. Collection Unit v. Atl. Container Line, 277 Md. 626, 629, 356 A.2d 555, 557-78 (1976)). The Court also noted that one does “not read statutory language in a vacuum” but, instead, “[w]e presume that the Legislature intends its enactments to operate together as a consistent and harmonious body of law, and, thus, we seek to reconcile and harmonize[.]”  Buckingham, 214 Md. App. at 678, 78 A.3d at 912 (quoting Lowery v. State, 430 Md. 477, 496 (2013) (quoting Lockshin v. Semsker, 412 Md. 257, 275–76 (2010)).  The Court determined that because enactments are to operate together, Rule 2-625 implements the limitations period in the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article Section 5-102. Buckingham, 214 Md. App. at 680-81, 78 A.3d at 913-14. The Court also provided that because Rule 2-625 implements the limitations period in Section 5-102, Rule 2-625, must, by implication, incorporate the State-held judgment exemption in Section 5-102. Id. Thus, Rule 2-625 does not extinguish a judgment held by the State for more than twelve years without being renewed.
The Court then evaluated the history of Rule 2-625, and concluded that the Rule was not intended “to create a new bar to the enforcement of judgments, but to change procedurally the implementation of the limitations period found in section 5-102 […] [a]nd it certainly was not intended to subject the State to the twelve-year limitations period found in section 5-102.” Id. at 681, 78 A.3d at 914.
In addition, the Court considered Harrison v. Motor Vehicle Admin., 302 Md. 634, 490 A.2d 694 (1985).  The Harrison case involved the consolidated cases of Arthur Harrison, Sr. and Clifton Lewis Thacker.  Id. at 640.  Both Harrison and Thacker were uninsured at the time of their separate vehicle accidents, and, therefore, the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund (“UCJF”) paid the holders of the judgments against them. Id.  Pending satisfaction of the judgment to UCJF, the driving and licensing privileges of Harrison and Thacker were suspended. Id.  At some point, the driving and licensing privileges of Harrison and Thacker were restored; however, more than twelve years after the original judgment against Harrison and Thacker was entered, the Motor Vehicle Administration (“MVA”) again suspended the privileges of Harrison and Thacker on grounds that they had failed to pay UCJF for the judgments against them.  Id.  The case came before the Court of Appeals, which held that because the judgments against Harrison and Thacker were “taken for the use of the State,” the State’s exemption from the twelve-year limitations period under Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article Section 5-102(c) applied, and, as such, the judgments were still enforceable, thus the MVA could suspend Harrison and Thacker’s driving and licensing privileges for failing to pay the judgment. Id. at 645. 
In the present case, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that, similar to the situation in Harrison where the limitations period did not bar the State from enforcing a judgment, Rule 2-625 does not extinguish a judgment held by the State even where that judgment is not renewed after twelve years. Id. at 683-84, 78 A.3d at 915-16.  Thus, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the judgment of the lower court and found in favor of the State. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Court of Special Appeals Provides Clarity to Subsequent Injury Fund

In the case of Schaffer v. Subsequent Injury Fund, 207 Md. App. 255; 52 A.3d 122. (2012) Russell Schaffer was involved in a serious automobile accident during the course of his employment. Due to pre-existing medical issues, Mr. Schaffer sought part of his compensation benefits from the Subsequent Injury Fund (“SIF”).  Prior to the “Nature & Extent” hearing, Mr. Schaffer settled for a lump sum with the employer/insurer. The settlement amount was $91,025.00, and was approved by the Commission.  The hearing proceeded with the SIF, and the Commission found Mr. Schaffer to be permanently and totally disabled.  The Commission found the employer/insurer liable for 55% and the SIF liable for the remaining 45%.  From the standpoint of the employer/insurer, the award would have been payable weekly for 367 weeks, with a scheduled end date in June of 2015.  The Commission further ordered SIF to commence payments on October 9, 2009, as opposed to after the 367 weeks would have been paid by the employer/insurer.  

The SIF objected to the commencement date and filed a Motion for a Rehearing. In its motion, the SIF argued that the commencement of its payments should begin when the employer/insurer’s payments would end. Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. §9-802, sub-section (c), states that “[c]ompensation from the Subsequent Injury Fund shall be paid after the completion of payment of the compensation by the employer or its insurer.” Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 9-802(c).  The SIF argued it would be unfair to begin payments on October 9, 2009 rather than June of 2015. Further, the SIF argued that if it began payments on the earlier 2009 date, it would be responsible for approximately $117,000 more than if the payments commenced in 2015 for the sole reason that Mr. Schaffer had entered into a settlement agreement with the employer/insurer, to which the SIF was not a party.  As a point of reference, SIF payments terminate upon the death of the claimant. Following a re-hearing on the issues, the Commission modified the order to reflect that the SIF payments commence in June of 2015, the date when the employer’s share of the award would be paid had the case not settled.

Mr. Schaffer filed a Petition for Judicial Review in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County.  By way of a Motion for Summary Judgment, the Circuit Court upheld the decision of the Commission’s modified order requiring SIF to begin payments in June 2015.  It stated that the statutory scheme of workers’ compensation is based on weeks and making an individual whole, not collecting from two sources.  The Court stated that a finding for Mr. Schaffer would result in a costly expansion of the SIF’s liability far beyond what was intended by the General Assembly.  Further, the Court stated that a finding for Mr. Schaffer may also entice insurer/employers to shift the financial burden to the SIF by making unreasonable settlements with significant discounts. 

Mr. Schaffer appealed and the Court of Special Appeals upheld the Circuit Court’s decision. In its opinion, the Court echoed the lower court’s sentiments, and further stated that “the policies underlying the creation of the [SIF] do not support a shifting of the employer’s portion of liability to the SIF, resulting in the SIF bearing more than its lawful proportionate share.” 52 A.3d at 130. Further, the Court reiterated that by settling with the employer/insurer, an employee could potentially increase his recovery beyond what was originally contemplated by the statutory scheme, and the employer could reduce its liability below what it originally would have been obligated to pay. The Court’s ruling clarified the statutory language and reduced the potential for abuse of the statutory benefit computations in the Labor and Employment Act. 

Article submitted by Alicyn Campbell, Esq.