A confusing set of jury instructions in a lawsuit stemming from a personal injury at a Maryland gas station under renovation recently took the case all the way to the state’s top court and will lead to a new trial.
In S&S Oil, Inc. v. Elaine W. Jackson, the Court of Appeals decided that a trial judge’s written and oral jury instructions conflicted; and, as a result, prevented the jury from considering a legal defense – assumption of the risk. A person assumes the risk of an injury if that person knows and understands the risk of an existing danger or reasonably should have known and understood the risk of an existing danger and voluntarily choose to encounter the danger.
The state’s top court also ruled that assumption of the risk and contributory negligence are two separate legal defenses.
The decision started with a slip and fall on a summer evening. Elaine W. Jackson entered a Lanham, Md-based gas station in June 2007 to purchase motor oil. When she returned to the car, Jackson’s granddaughter, who had accompanied her, asked for a soda. In going back into the station to purchase the soda, Jackson stepped onto uneven ground, injuring her right knee and lower back, leading to outpatient surgery on the knee.
Jackson filed a negligence suit against S&S in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County in 2008. She testified that she was not looking at the floor during her walk as she had just been in the station and “trusted her environment.” The station owner testified that there was orange or red caution tape across part of the construction area and a “Watch Your Step” sign in the immediate vicinity. Jackson testified that she had not seen the caution tape, the warning sign or any dangerous condition and that she assumed the floor was level.
After a three-day trial, the trial judge told the jury to return its verdict by answering a series of questions on a verdict sheet. The gas station’s attorney asked the court to include a question about assumption of risk. The judge denied the request but provided the jury with oral instructions on the defense. However, a question about whether Jackson was contributorily negligent was placed on the verdict sheet. Under current Maryland law, if the plaintiff in a lawsuit has contributed in any way to the accident for which she is suing, her case will be thrown out of court. The doctrine is under scrutiny. The Court of Appeals recently heard arguments in a case asking it to abandon the use of contributory negligence and switch to comparative negligence, where fault and the resulting damages would be apportioned between the parties. The Jackson jury found that the gas station was negligent, that Jackson was not contributorily negligent and awarded Jackson $12,416 for past medical expenses and $131,000 in non-economic damages.
On appeal, S&S contended that by denying its request to include assumption of the risk, the trial court prevented the jury from considering whether Jackson assumed the risk of her injuries and committed reversible error. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, determining that the two defenses – contributory negligence and assumption of the risk – were substantially the same.
However, the state’s top court saw things differently, reversing both courts and ordering a new trial. “We hold that under the facts of this case: (1) the intermediate appellate court was incorrect in concluding that assumption of the risk and contributory negligence were ‘substantially the same question,’ (2) the verdict sheet, as written would cause confusion over which defenses to consider and mislead a reasonable juror to fail to consider the defense of assumption of the risk; (3) failing to adequately present assumption of the risk constituted error because [the gas station] had a right to present the defense to the jury; and (4) that error prejudiced [the gas station’s] case,” the court said.
The case was released September 25, 2012.
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