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Century-Old Law Likely to Change - How Will It Affect You
Erin H. Cancienne

On Monday, September 10, 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on whether the judges should overturn the 165-year-old ruling that defendants cannot be held liable for damages if the plaintiff’s negligence contributed at all to their injuries.  In the case of James K. Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, et al., the Court considered whether contributory negligence should continue to be the law in this state, or whether the state should switch to a comparative fault regime.  Legal experts predict the court will take the drastic move of changing to a comparative fault regime.

Contributory negligence is a principle that completely bars a plaintiff’s recovery if the plaintiff is at fault for the injuries.  A plaintiff is barred from recovery whether plaintiff’s fault was a small cause of the injury or the entire cause of the injury.  There is no comparison between plaintiff’s fault and any defendant’s fault.  Because this system bars any recovery if plaintiff is even the least bit at fault, fewer plaintiffs recover under the system.  When there are fewer recoveries, insurance prices will be lower.  Currently, only five jurisdictions in the United States still have a contributory negligence regime.  These jurisdictions are: Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and Alabama.

Most states have a comparative law regime.  In comparative law regimes, as the name implies, the fault of all parties is compared.  There are a few different types of comparative law regimes.  Some are pure comparative law, which compares the fault of all parties and reduces plaintiff’s recovery by the amount of plaintiff’s fault.  Other jurisdictions have modified comparative fault regimes.  Modified comparative fault regimes can bar plaintiff’s recovery if plaintiff is a certain percent at fault, or can only require a defendant to pay if that defendant is more at fault than plaintiff.  Unlike contributory regimes, plaintiffs tend to recover more often in a comparative fault regime, which cause insurance premiums to be higher. 

In the case before the Court, Mr. Coleman was injured when a soccer goal collapsed.  Mr. Coleman was hanging on the goal at the time of the collapse.  The jury in Howard County found that the Soccer Association of Columbia was negligent.  However, the jury also found that Mr. Coleman was contributorily negligent, or partially at fault, and therefore, Mr. Coleman was barred from recovery.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments from not only the parties, but also several national groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Medical Association and American Insurance Association.  Plaintiff’s counsel maintained the state’s “contributory negligence” doctrine was unjust as it denied individuals compensation in court when a defendant was overwhelmingly at fault for their injuries.  Additionally, they argued that abandoning the contributory negligence doctrine in favor of comparative negligence would make for “a very easy transition” for Maryland lawyers and judges.  The defense attorneys maintained that any changes to the standard should be made by the General Assembly and not the court.  The General Assembly has never voted against contributory negligence. 

There is a strong belief that the Court of Appeals intends to overturn contributory negligence and switch to some form of a comparative fault regime.  The exact type of comparative negligence to be used in Maryland is anyone’s guess.  If the court acts as expected, Maryland citizens should expect insurance premiums to rise in response.

As more information on this monumental case becomes available, we will update our website with additional news.