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Maryland Couple Not Liable in Auto Accident When They Refused to Leave Stalled Vehicle

Broken car.jpgA Maryland couple was not contributorily negligent when they refused to leave their vehicle after it stalled at a busy Suitland, Maryland intersection, the Court of Special Appeals has ruled in a Maryland auto accident case.

The personal injury law ruling stemmed from a 2010 automobile accident involving vehicles operated by Cherice Willis and Derrick and Tylisha Ford. Willis rear-ended the Fords' SUV after it stalled at the light.

The Fords filed a complaint for negligence against Willis in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County in September. The trial judge gave the jury an instruction on contributory negligence. Under the legal concept of contributory negligence, if a plaintiff is found to have contributed to the personal injury in any way, then the defendant can win the case. Maryland is one of the few states that still uses the concept; although, it is under review by the state's top court. The jury returned a verdict for the Fords, awarding $4,800.76 for Mr. Ford's medical bills, as well as $4,200 for Mr. Ford's non-economic damages. The jury also awarded $1,292.53 to Ms. Ford for medical bills and $5,000 to Ms. Ford for non-economic damages.

Willis then filed a Motion for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict ("JNOV") and a Motion for New Trial - both of which the court denied. Willis then appealed the decision.

Willis argued on appeal that the trial court made a mistake by denying her motions on the basis that the Fords should have been found contributorily negligent. Willis contended that the Fords were contributorily negligent because they remained inside the vehicle while Mr. Ford attempted to restart the vehicle, rather than getting out of the vehicle and moving to the median of the road.

Willis cited a case decided in 1955 in support of her position. In that case, a couple spun off the highway on a dark, rainy night and onto the grass median when traffic was stopped because of construction. Their vehicle was hit when they attempted to get back onto the highway. The Court of Appeals observed that, "where one leaves a place of safety to venture into a place or posture of danger, and is harmed; in such cases, the venturesome one often has been held to be guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law." "Conversely, where one who remains in a place of danger with time and the physical ability to leave, and is harmed, the courts have often held such failure to act to be contributory negligence as a matter of law," the court continued.

Willis said the case was persuasive in light of two key facts. First, because Ms. Ford testified that one of the reasons that she did not get out of the vehicle was because she was wearing high heeled shoes. Second, Ms. Ford testified that she observed Willis' vehicle approaching for approximately 60 seconds before the collision.

The appeals court said Willis carried the burden of proof at trial to demonstrate that the Fords were contributorily negligent. Here, Willis sought judgment as a matter of law. To obtain judgment as a matter of law, Willis was required to show that there was no evidence from which the jury could find that the Fords acted reasonably under the circumstances.

The Fords argued there was evidence to support their claims and that there was more than one reasonable inference that a jury could make concerning the issue of contributory negligence. Accordingly, the Fords argued, Willis failed to show that there was only one factual and legal conclusion available from the evidence. For these reasons, the Fords said the circuit court did not err in denying Willis' motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial.

"We agree with the Fords," the court responded. The question was whether it was so unreasonable for the Fords to conclude that it was safer to remain in their vehicle that no ordinary person would have reached the same conclusion, the court observed, explaining that the case Willis depended on was different from the circumstances presented in this instance.

The couple in the case Willis cited had reached a place of safety -- the grass median - and chose to drive into oncoming traffic -- a place of danger. By contrast, here, Mr. Ford's vehicle stalled on the highway. The Fords, therefore, were in a place of danger. The distinction is critical, the court noted. Because the Fords were not in a place of safety, they were faced with two potential courses of action, each of which carried risk. They could remain in the vehicle, try to restart it and hope to continue on their way. Alternatively, they could have exited the vehicle, walked across one lane of traffic on the highway to the grass median, and left the vehicle on the roadway. "In our view," the court said, "Willis failed to show that this could be the only factual and legal conclusion available from the evidence."

Likewise, Willis failed to show that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. The Fords were driving a large, white vehicle. There was testimony -- although it was contradicted -- that the vehicle's hazard lights were turned on. There was also testimony indicating that other drivers had observed Mr. Ford's stalled vehicle and safely drove around it. At the time, the Fords did not know why their vehicle had stalled, and, therefore, believed they could continue on their way by trying to restart the vehicle. Finally, in order to reach the grass median, they would have had to cross a dimly lit and busy traffic lane on a highway. It was incumbent on the trial judge to submit the Fords' decision-making process to the judgment of the jurors, who could evaluate the Fords' course of action under the "reasonable person" standard, the court said.

"Accordingly, we hold that the trial court did not err in denying Ms. Willis' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, because Ms. Willis failed to show that the only factual and legal conclusion available from the evidence was that the Fords were contributorily negligent as a matter of law. We further hold that the jury's verdict was not against the weight of the evidence, and, therefore, the trial court did not err in denying Ms. Willis' motion for a new trial," the court declared.

Baltimore, Md.-based Belsky, Weinberg & Horowitz has been representing clients in auto accident and personal injury cases for many years. Call us at 410-234-0100 or email us for a free consultation and let us help you.

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