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Maryland High Court Limits Doctrine of Imputed Negligence

May 1, 2018 By Adam D. Perrelli

Under the doctrine of imputed negligence, the negligence of one individual may be imputed to another who was otherwise without fault. Applying this doctrine to motor vehicle torts can impute the negligence of a permissive driver of a vehicle to the owner of that vehicle if the driver operates the vehicle negligently while the owner is a passenger. The Court of Appeals created this doctrine with the well-meaning intention of allowing an injured party to obtain compensation from a vehicle’s owner, who logically, is most likely to be financially responsible.

In Seaborne-Worsley vs. Mintiens, 218 Md. LEXIS 188 (2018), The Maryland Court of Appeals has elected to follow the national trend toward limiting the doctrine of imputed negligence. Jeffrey Mintiens backed his truck out of a parking space and struck a car in which Ms. Worsley was seated. The Worsley vehicle was double parked while the driver, Ms. Worsley’s husband, ran into a restaurant to pick up takeout food. Ms. Worsley sued Mintiens, who raised contributory negligence as a defense. The trial court found that Ms. Worsley’s husband had been negligent, and that his negligence should be imputed to Ms. Worsley, as she was the sole owner of the vehicle at the time of the accident.

The Court of Appeals discussed the doctrine’s original purpose, “to distribute losses and risk among motorists as a class.“ The Court reasoned that today, the doctrine of imputed negligence is less compelling for several reasons: (1) changes in statutory law and insurance coverage render the doctrine nearly obsolete; (2) the overall fiction of “owner control”; (3) the difficulty in determining exactly who is an owner, especially in families where vehicles may be claimed by one or more members in contradiction to the formal titling or registration of the vehicle; and (4) the limitation or abolition of the doctrine in other states. The Court stopped short of completely eliminating imputed negligence altogether, but did away with the presumption that an injured owner/passenger is contributorily negligent simply because the driver is negligent. While imputed negligence may be an obsolete precedent, the Court found that there may be occasions when the doctrine still serves its original purpose of compensating an innocent injured party.