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Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 9, 2013

JAMES COLEMAN
v.
SOCCER ASSOCIATION OF COLUMBIA

Bell, C. J. [*] Harrell Battaglia Greene McDonald Eldridge, John C. (Retired, Specially Assigned) Raker, Irma S. (Retired, Specially Assigned) JJ.

OPINION

Eldridge, J.

Thirty years ago, in Harrison v. Montgomery County Bd. of Educ., 295 Md. 442, 444, 456 A.2d 894 (1983), this Court issued a writ of certiorari to decide "whether the common law doctrine of contributory negligence should be judicially abrogated in Maryland and the doctrine of comparative negligence adopted in its place as the rule governing trial of negligence actions in this State." In a comprehensive opinion by then Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, the Court in Harrison, 295 Md. at 463, 456 A.2d at 905, declined to abandon the doctrine of contributory negligence in favor of comparative negligence, pointing out that such change "involves fundamental and basic public policy considerations properly to be addressed by the legislature."

The petitioner in the case at bar presents the same issue that was presented in Harrison, namely whether this Court should change the common law and abrogate the defense of contributory negligence in certain types of tort actions. After reviewing the issue again, we shall arrive at the same conclusion that the Court reached in Harrison.

I.

The petitioner and plaintiff below, James Kyle Coleman, was an accomplished soccer player who had volunteered to assist in coaching a team of young soccer players in a program of the Soccer Association of Columbia, in Howard County, Maryland. On August 19, 2008, Coleman, at the time 20 years old, was assisting the coach during the practice of a team of young soccer players on the field of the Lime Kiln Middle School. While the Soccer Association of Columbia had fields of its own, it did not have enough to accommodate all of the program's young soccer players; the Association was required to use school fields for practices. At some point during the practice, Coleman kicked a soccer ball into a soccer goal. As he passed under the goal's metal top rail, or crossbar, to retrieve the ball, he jumped up and grabbed the crossbar. The soccer goal was not anchored to the ground, and, as he held on to the upper crossbar, Coleman fell backwards, drawing the weight of the crossbar onto his face. He suffered multiple severe facial fractures which required surgery and the placing of three titanium plates in his face. Coleman instituted the present action by filing a complaint, in the Circuit Court for Howard County, alleging that he was injured by the defendants' negligence.[1]The defendant and respondent, the Soccer Association of Columbia, asserted the defense of contributory negligence.

At the ensuing jury trial, the soccer coach who had invited Coleman to help coach the soccer players testified that he had not inspected or anchored the goal which fell on Coleman. The coach also testified that the goal was not owned or provided by the Soccer Association, and he did not believe that it was his responsibility to anchor the goal. During the trial, the parties disputed whether the goal was located in an area under the supervision and control of the Soccer Association and whether the Soccer Association was required to inspect and anchor the goal. The Soccer Association presented testimony tending to show that, because the goal was not owned by the Soccer Association, the Soccer Association owed no duty to Coleman. The Soccer Association also presented testimony that the condition of the goal was open and obvious to all persons. The Association maintained that the accident was caused solely by Coleman's negligence.

Testimony was provided by Coleman to the effect that players commonly hang from soccer goals and that his actions should have been anticipated and expected by the Soccer Association. Coleman also provided testimony that anchoring goals is a standard safety practice in youth soccer.

At the close of evidence, Coleman's attorney proffered a jury instruction on comparative negligence.[2] The judge declined to give Coleman's proffered comparative negligence instruction and, instead, instructed the jury on contributory negligence.

The jury was given a verdict sheet posing several questions. The first question was: "Do you find that the Soccer Association of Columbia was negligent?" The jury answered "yes" to this question. The jury also answered "yes" to the question: "Do you find that the Soccer Association of Columbia's negligence caused the Plaintiff's injuries?" Finally, the jury answered "yes" to the question: "Do you find that the Plaintiff was negligent and that his negligence contributed to his claimed injuries?"

In short, the jury concluded that the Soccer Association of Columbia was negligent and that the Soccer Association's negligence caused Coleman's injuries. The jury also found that Coleman was negligent, and that his negligence contributed to his own injuries. Because of the contributory negligence finding, Coleman was barred from any recovery. The trial court denied Coleman's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and subsequently entered judgment in favor of the Soccer Association of Columbia.

Coleman filed a notice of appeal, and the Soccer Association filed a notice of cross-appeal.[3] Before briefing and argument in the Court of Special Appeals, Coleman filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari, which was granted. Coleman v. Soccer Ass'n of Columbia, 425 Md. 396, 41 A.3d 570 (2012). In his petition, Coleman posed only one question: whether this Court should retain the standard of contributory negligence as the common law standard governing negligence cases in the State of Maryland.

We shall hold that, although this Court has the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence, we decline to abrogate Maryland's long-established common law principle of contributory negligence.

II.

This Court last addressed the continuing viability of the contributory negligence doctrine in Harrison v. Montgomery County Bd. of Educ., supra, 295 Md. 442, 456 A.2d 894. In Harrison, the Court held that the contributory negligence principle remained the valid standard in Maryland negligence cases and that "any change in the established doctrine [was for] the Legislature." 295 Md. at 463, 456 A.2d at 905.

Chief Judge Murphy, for the Court in Harrison, began his review of the contributory negligence standard by tracing the standard's historical origins to Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough's opinion in Butterfield v. Forrester, 11 East 60, 103 Eng. Rep. 926 (K.B. 1809).[4] As Harrison explained the case,

"Butterfield left a public inn at dusk, mounted his horse and rode off 'violently' down the street. Forrester, who was effecting some repairs to his house, had placed a pole in the roadway. Although Butterfield could have seen and avoided the obstruction, he did not and was injured. The [English] court there noted:
'One person being in fault will not dispense with another's using ordinary care for himself. Two things must concur to support this action, an obstruction in the road by the fault of the defendant, and no want of ordinary care to avoid it on the part of the plaintiff.' [11 East] at 61, 103 Eng. Rep. at 927."

The Harrison opinion explained that, when the contributory negligence standard was first judicially adopted in the United States, the courts at the time were concerned that juries would award to plaintiffs sums that had the potential to stifle "newly developing industry."[5] Early American courts were also concerned that they should not adopt a policy in which "courts... assist a wrongdoer who suffered an injury as a result of his own wrongdoing." Harrison, 295 Md. at 450, 456 A.2d at 898. See also Smith v. Smith, 2 Pick. 621, 19 Mass. 621, 624 (1824) (a leading early American case incorporating the contributory negligence bar as part of common law).

This Court, relying on Butterfield v. Forrester, supra, first adopted the standard of contributory negligence in Irwin v. Sprigg, 6 Gill. 200, 205 (1847), stating:

"The established doctrine now is, that although the defendant's misconduct may have been the primary cause of the injury complained of, yet the plaintiff cannot recover in an action of this kind, if the proximate and immediate cause of the damage can be traced to a want of ordinary care and caution on his part. Under such circumstances he must bear the consequences of his own recklessness or folly."

The contributory negligence standard was later modified in part by this Court's adoption of the last clear chance doctrine, see N.C. R.R. Co. v. State, Use of Price, 29 Md. 420, 436 (1868), which allowed a plaintiff to recover "if the defendant might, by the exercise of care on its part, have avoided the consequences of the neglect or carelessness" of the plaintiff. The Court recognized another exception to the contributory negligence standard where the plaintiff is under five years old. See Taylor v. Armiger, 277 Md. 638, 358 A.2d 883 (1975).

The Harrison Court examined the origins and impact of comparative negligence, noting that early in the 20th century, the Maryland General Assembly had adopted a form of comparative negligence for "certain perilous occupations, " but had subsequently repealed the provisions. The Court in Harrison also pointed out that, as of 1983, of the thirty-nine states that had adopted comparative negligence, thirty-one had done so by statute, with the eight remaining states having adopted the principle by judicial action. The Court noted that it was "clear" that legal scholars "favored" the comparative negligence standard, as supported by "[a]n almost boundless array of scholarly writings." 295 Md. at 453, 456 A.2d at 899.

Nevertheless, the Harrison Court pointed to other considerations involved in changing the standard from contributory negligence to comparative negligence (295 Md. at 454-455, 456 A.2d at 900-901):

"Also to be considered is the effect which a comparative fault system would have on other fundamental areas of negligence law. The last clear chance doctrine, assumption of the risk, joint and several liability, contribution, setoffs and counterclaims, and application of the doctrine to other fault systems, such as strict liability in tort, are several of the more obvious areas affected by the urged shift to comparative negligence. Even that change has its complications; beside the 'pure' form of comparative negligence, there are several 'modified' forms, so that abrogation of the contributory negligence doctrine will necessitate the substitution of an alternate doctrine. Which form to adopt presents its own questions and the choice is by no means clear....That a change from contributory to comparative negligence involves considerably more than a simple common law adjustment is readily apparent."

Harrison also examined those states which had abrogated the contributory negligence standard, pointing out that "most of the states which have adopted comparative negligence have done so by statute in derogation of the common law." 295 Md. at 456, 456 A.2d at 901. The Court observed that, in several of these states, the courts had refused to judicially abrogate the contributory negligence standard because they "expressly deferred on policy grounds to their respective legislatures." 295 Md. at 456, 456 A.2d at 901. Only eight state supreme courts, as of 1983, had adopted a comparative negligence standard by judicial decision.

The Harrison opinion further held that, when this Court is

"called upon, as here, to overrule our own decisions, consideration must be given to the doctrine of stare decisis – the policy which entails the reaffirmation of a decisional doctrine of an appellate court, even though if considered for the first time, the Court might reach a different conclusion. Deems v. Western Maryland Ry., 247 Md. 95, 231 A.2d 514 (1966)."295 Md. at 458, 456 A.2d at 902.

Chief Judge Murphy in Harrison continued his assessment by explaining that the principle of stare decisis should not be construed to

"inhibit [this Court] from changing or modifying a common law rule by judicial decision where we find, in light of changed conditions or increased knowledge, that the rule has become unsound in the circumstances of modern life, a vestige of the past, no longer suitable to our people." (295 Md. at 459, 456 A.2d at 903).

Nevertheless, Harrison concluded (295 Md. at 459, 456 A.2d at 903):

"[I]n considering whether a long-established common law rule – unchanged by the legislature and thus reflective of this State's public policy – is unsound in the circumstances of modern life, we have always recognized that declaration of the public policy of Maryland is normally the function of the General Assembly; that body, by Article 5 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, is expressly empowered to revise the common law of Maryland by legislative enactment. See Felder v. Butler...292 Md. [174, ] 183, 438 A.2d 494 [, 499]; Adler v. American Standard Corp....291 Md. [31, ] 45, 432 A.2d 464 [, 472]. The Court, therefore, has been particularly reluctant to alter a common law rule in the face of indications that to do so would be contrary to the public policy of the State. See, e.g., Condore v. Prince George's Co....289 Md. [516, ] 532, 425 A.2d [1019, ] 1011."

In the years immediately prior to Harrison, from 1966 to 1982, the Maryland General Assembly had considered twenty-one bills seeking to change the contributory negligence standard. None of the bills had been enacted. The Harrison Court accorded a great deal of weight to the General Assembly's failure to enact any of these bills, stating:

"[T]he legislature's action in rejecting the proposed change is indicative of an intention to retain the contributory negligence doctrine." 295 Md. at 462, 456 A.2d at 904.

The Court further pointed out that enactment of a comparative negligence standard is not a single issue; instead, such a decision would encompasses a variety of choices to be made, beginning with the initial inquiry of what form of comparative negligence to adopt, "pure" or one "of the several types of modified comparative negligence, " 295 Md. at 462-463, 456 A.2d at 904. If Maryland's common law were to change, the Harrison opinion explained, the decision as to which form of comparative negligence to adopt "plainly involves major policy considerations" of the sort best left to the General Assembly. 295 Md. at 462, 456 A.2d at 904.

III.

Since the time of Harrison, this Court has continued to recognize the standard of contributory negligence as the applicable principle in Maryland negligence actions. See, e.g., Thomas v. Panco Management of Maryland, LLC, 423 Md. 387, 417, 31 A.3d 583, 601 (2011); Erie Insurance Exchange v. Heffernan, 399 Md. 598, 925 A.2d 636 (2007); Dehn v. Edgecombe, 384 Md. 606, 865 A.2d 603(2005); Franklin v. Morrison, 350 Md. 144, 168, 711 A.2d 177, 189 (1998); County Commissioners v. Bell Atlantic, 346 Md. 160, 695 A.2d 171 (1997); Brady v. Parsons Co., 327 Md. 275, 609 A.2d 297 (1992); Wegad v. Howard Street Jewelers, 326 Md. 409, 605 A.2d 123 (1992); Liscombe v. Potomac Edison Co., 303 Md. 619, 495 A.2d 838 (1985).

Although the contributory negligence principle has been part of this State's common law for over 165 years, petitioners and numerous amici in this case urge this Court to abolish the contributory negligence standard and replace it with a form of comparative negligence. They argue contributory negligence is an antiquated doctrine, that it has been roundly criticized by academic legal scholars, and that it has been rejected in a majority of our sister states. It is also pointed out that contributory negligence works an inherent unfairness by barring plaintiffs from any recovery, even when it is proven, in a particular case, that a defendant's negligence was primarily responsible for the act or omission which resulted in a plaintiff's injuries. It is said that contributory negligence provides harsh justice to those who may have acted negligently, in minor ways, to contribute to their injuries, and that it absolves those defendants from liability who can find any minor negligence in the plaintiffs' behavior.

Petitioners correctly contend that, because contributory negligence is a court-created principle, and has not been embodied in Maryland statutes, this Court possesses the authority to change the principle. This Court has recognized that (Irel ...


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