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Warnken, LLC Attorneys at Law, Attorneys & Lawyers, Pikesville, MD

What Is Contributory Negligence?

by Stephanie Yanovich and Byron Warnken

If you’ve sustained an injury due to an accident, your world has undoubtedly been turned upside down. Doctor bills, lost wages, and potentially long-term pain are threatening to rob you of the life you once knew, and you may be wondering if litigation against the party who caused your accident could lead to compensation that will ease your suffering. Unfortunately, injury claims in Maryland are especially challenging to plaintiffs because of a legal doctrine known as contributory negligence. Under this rule, if an accident victim is found to have contributed even slightly to their injuries, they are completely barred from financial recovery.

Comparative Negligence is a Better Solution

The contributory negligence standard has become an outlier in the U.S. legal system. In fact, Maryland is one of only a small handful of jurisdictions in the country that continue to employ this outdated concept in personal injury cases. Virtually all other regions have replaced it with a far more reasonable legal doctrine known as comparative negligence, whereby compensation awarded to an accident victim is directly proportional to the individual’s degree of responsibility for the incident. For example, if a jury found that a plaintiff injured in an auto accident was 25% responsible for the harm caused, then the plaintiff’s award would be reduced by that amount. In a purely contributory negligence jurisdiction such as Maryland, however, even a finding of 1% responsibility on the part of the plaintiff would result in an absolute bar to any compensation.

Maryland’s unusually harsh contributory negligence statute is the perfect tool for a defense team aiming to absolve their client of any financial obligation to an injured party. By mounting a contributory negligence counterclaim, the defendant will often avoid paying any damages if they can show that the plaintiff bore even a minuscule amount of responsibility for the accident.

As inequitable as this regulation may seem, there are no indications Maryland will move away from it in the foreseeable future. Contributory negligence has been utilized statewide since 1847, and was reaffirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals as recently as 2013, in Coleman v Soccer Association of Columbia. The case involved a soccer coach who was seriously injured when he grabbed on to the unsecured crossbar of a goalpost and it flipped over onto his head. The jury had found both the plaintiff and the defendant acted negligently, and therefore the plaintiff was barred from being awarded any damages. On appeal, the court upheld the original ruling in favor of the defendant, declining to strike down Maryland’s contributory negligence law. As the court explained          , “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.”

Don’t Assume You Do Not Have a Claim Just Because of Contrib

It is no surprise that the Maryland legislature has refused to amend the contributory negligence rule. It’s widely supported by big businesses that have both the motivation to avoid payouts to people they hurt and the financial means to lobby lawmakers, thereby ensuring votes in their favor. That is why it is imperative that you contact a qualified, experienced personal injury attorney if you have been hurt due to an auto accident, slip and fall, or medical malpractice. At Warnken, LLC, we don’t represent the interests of big business – we represent you. And while it is likely that contributory negligence will remain in Maryland long term, there are exceptions to the law that make it possible for an injured party to collect financial compensation. A skilled attorney can prevail against a contributory negligence defense under certain circumstances and secure the monetary damages you deserve. Contact our office today for a free, no pressure consultation to determine if we can help you seek justice.

[See Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, 432 Md. 679 (2013)]