Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed: July 9, 2013
Opinion by Judge John C. Eldridge

Held: The defense of contributory negligence remains the law in Maryland. While the Court has the authority to change the rule, it declines to do so out of deference to the legislature.

Facts: The plaintiff was coaching soccer for the defendant soccer association. While standing in front of a soccer goal, the plaintiff jumped up and grabbed onto the front crossbar. The goal was not anchored to the ground. The plaintiff fell backward, drawing the weight of the crossbar onto his face. He was severely injured.The plaintiff sued the defendant. At trial, the defendant argued that the condition of the goal was open and obvious and that the accident was caused by the plaintiff's own negligence.

The jury returned a verdict finding that the defendant was negligent and the plaintiff was negligent also. On the basis of the doctrine of contributory negligence, the trial court entered judgment in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed and challenged the viability of the contributory negligence defense as a legal doctrine in Maryland.

Analysis: The opinion contains an analysis of the history and policy behind the defense of contributory negligence. It also contains an analysis of the Court's authority to abrogate the common law, concluding that the Court could change the common law rule of its own accord. The Court notes, however, that since the rule was last affirmed by the Court in Harrison v. Montgomery County Bd. of Educ., 295 Md. 442, 444, 456 A.2d 894 (1983), the Maryland General Assembly has continually considered and failed to pass bills that would abolish or modify the rule. The failure of so many bills "is a clear indication of the legislative policy at the present time." The Court concludes that where the General Assembly has endorsed a public policy, the "Court will decline to enter the public policy debate, even when it is the common law that is at issue and the Court certainly has the authority to change the common law." On that basis, the Court affirmed the trial court.

Dissent: Judge Harrell, joined by Chief Judge Bell, wrote a dissenting opinion that concurs that the Court has the authority to abrogate the common law. It goes further and states that the Court need not defer to continued legislative inaction. It points out that, since 2003, the General Assembly has considered the adoption of comparative negligence only one time. In that context, legislative inaction need not be taken as endorsement of a public policy favoring contributory negligence. Ultimately, the dissent argues that the Court should adopt "pure comparative fault" as the controlling standard, whereby damages are apportioned among the parties according the percentage that each party's negligence contributed to the injury.

The full opinion is available in .pdf.