26 July 2013

The Maryland Court of Appeals and judicial restraint

Judicial restraint is a theory that judges should limit their own power, primarily by giving deference to legislatures. Two recent cases from the Maryland Court of Appeals illustrate this theory.

Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia (case page): Coleman (a volunteer soccer coach) was retrieving a ball from a soccer goal when he jumped and grabbed the crossbar. The goal subsequently collapsed and injured him. The jury found that the Soccer Association of Columbia was negligent, but that Coleman was also negligent.

Maryland is one of only a few jurisdictions (the others being Alabama, the District of Columbia, North Carolina, and Virginia) that allows the defense of contributory negligence. When a plaintiff is found to have contributed to his own injuries, he cannot recover (even if his contribution was minimal). Because the jury found that Coleman was partially negligent in causing his own injuries, he could recover nothing.

Most states allow a defense of comparative negligence, which reduces the amount of damages that a plaintiff can recover in a negligence-based claim based upon the degree to which the plaintiff's own negligence contributed to cause the injury. In other words, if a plaintiff is found to be 30% responsible for an injury based upon a $100,000 claim, he would recover 70%, or $70,000.

The question before the Maryland Court of Appeals was whether the Court should ameliorate or repudiate the doctrine of contributory negligence and replace it with a comparative negligence regime.

In a 5-2 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the General Assembly’s repeated failure to pass legislation abrogating the defense of contributory negligence is very strong evidence that the legislative policy in Maryland is to retain the principle of contributory negligence. As a result, the Court declined to repudiate the doctrine of contributory negligence and replace it with comparative negligence.

The Court said that:
The General Assembly’s repeated failure to pass legislation abrogating the defense of contributory negligence is very strong evidence that the legislative policy in Maryland is to retain the principle of contributory negligence...For this Court to change the common law and abrogate the contributory negligence defense in negligence actions, in the face of the General Assembly’s repeated refusal to do so, would be totally inconsistent with the Court’s long-standing jurisprudence.
Warr v. JMGM GroupThe Warrs filed suit against JMGM Group, LLC, which owns the Dogfish Head Alehouse (Dogfish Head), to recover for injuries they and their daughter sustained and for the death of their second daughter in a car accident. The Warrs alleged that the driver of the vehicle that struck the car Mr. Warr was driving had been served alcohol while “clearly intoxicated” at Dogfish Head. Because members of the Dogfish Head’s staff had served him alcohol while he was so compromised, the Warrs alleged, the tavern had breached its duty to them to “not furnish alcohol to intoxicated persons,” which caused their injuries.

The question before the Court of Appeals was whether Maryland should recognize a cause of action against a tavern for harm caused by an intoxicated patron, off premises, in the absence of a special relationship between the tavern and the person harmed or between the tavern and the actor who caused the harm.

In a 4-3 decision declining to find such liability against Dogfish Head, the Court wrote that:
The Legislature...“is in a far better position that this Court to gather the empirical data and to make the fact finding necessary to determine what the public policy should be....”  We agree.
In both cases, the decision rested not on whether proposed change in the law was a good idea, but whether it was appropriate for the Court (instead of the legislature) to change the law. In both cases, the Maryland Court of Appeals deferred to the legislature.
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