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Seaborne-Worsley v. Mintiens

Court of Appeals of Maryland

April 20, 2018

Victoria Seaborne-Worsley
Jeffrey Mintiens

          Argument: December 4, 2017

          Circuit Court for Baltimore County Case No. 03-C-16-012948

          Barbera, C.J. Greene Adkins McDonald Hotten Getty, Battaglia, Lynne A. (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          McDonald, J.

         Under the "controversial doctrine of imputed negligence, "[1] the negligence of one individual may be imputed to another who was otherwise without fault. In the realm of automobile torts, the doctrine has been applied to ascribe the negligence of a permissive driver of a car to the owner of the car if the driver operates the car negligently while the owner is a passenger. In that context, the doctrine of imputed negligence is based on the fiction that the owner is able to control the actions of the driver and therefore is responsible for any misstep of the driver.

         In the past, the doctrine functioned to ensure that individuals injured in automobile accidents would be able to obtain compensation from the party most likely to be financially responsible - the car's owner. However, developments in the law and in insurance coverage make reliance on the fiction of owner control less compelling. Moreover, in situations where an owner-passenger is injured and innocent of any negligence, application of the doctrine, in conjunction with a defense of contributory negligence, can have the perverse effect of foreclosing compensation to an injured party who was not personally at fault. As a result, courts in many states have abrogated or limited the doctrine of imputed negligence. This case presents an opportunity for us to do the same.

         This case grew out of an accident in a restaurant parking lot when Respondent Jeffrey Mintiens backed his truck out of a parking space and struck a car in which Petitioner Victoria Worsley ("Ms. Worsley")[2] was seated. Ms. Worsley's husband[3] had driven the couple to the restaurant and left the car and his wife stopped in a travel lane perpendicular to Mr. Mintiens' parking space while he retrieved the couple's take-out order from the restaurant.

         Ms. Worsley filed suit against Mr. Mintiens in the District Court of Maryland sitting in Baltimore County, alleging that Mr. Mintiens was negligent and seeking various damages. At trial, Mr. Mintiens raised the defense of contributory negligence. The District Court concluded that Ms. Worsley's husband had himself been negligent. It also concluded that his negligence should be imputed to Ms. Worsley under the imputed negligence doctrine because, though a passenger, she was the sole owner of the car at the time of the accident. Accordingly, the District Court entered a judgment in favor of Mr. Mintiens. In an on-the-record appeal, the Circuit Court for Baltimore County affirmed that decision.

         We granted Ms. Worsley's petition for a writ of certiorari to consider whether the doctrine of imputed negligence applies in these circumstances. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we hold that it does not.

         I Background

         A. The Accident

         The following facts are derived from the testimony at trial before the District Court. Although some facts are disputed - and we indicate where below - those relevant to the issue before us are largely uncontested.

         On the evening of October 23, 2015, Ms. Worsley and her husband drove to the Pappas Restaurant in Parkville, Maryland to pick up a take-out dinner. Ms. Worsley's husband drove the car - a four-door sedan of which Ms. Worsley was the sole owner[4] - while she rode in the front passenger's seat. They arrived at the restaurant sometime shortly before 6:30 p.m.

         At the restaurant, there was a window facing the parking lot where customers could pick up take-out orders. Adjacent to this window were at least two handicapped parking spaces. Ms. Worsley's husband stopped the car perpendicular to the handicapped parking spaces, placed it in park, got out of the car, and walked to the carry out window, leaving Ms. Worsley alone in the car. According to Ms. Worsley, she was supposed to take her husband's place in the driver's seat and park the car while he retrieved their food.

         In the meantime, Mr. Mintiens had been at the restaurant since 5 p.m., during which time he met a friend and drank three beers. Shortly before 6:30 p.m., he obtained a takeout order for his family's dinner and set out for the parking lot, where he had parked his truck opposite the handicapped spaces.

         Mr. Mintiens testified that he did not notice any cars parked behind his truck at that time. According to Mr. Mintiens, in the space of approximately 20 seconds, he walked to the passenger side of his truck, placed the food in the passenger seat, went back around to the driver's side, and got into his truck. Somewhat at odds with Mr. Mintiens' testimony, Ms. Worsley testified at trial that she was already sitting alone in her car when, in her peripheral vision, she saw Mr. Mintiens walk across the parking lot and approach his truck, which was parked just about two and a half feet from the car in which Ms. Worsley sat.

         According to Mr. Mintiens, after he got into the truck, he looked in his rear view mirror and driver side mirror (but not his passenger side mirror) before backing up. There appears to be no dispute that what happened next was that Mr. Mintiens backed his truck into Ms. Worsley's car.

         Ms. Worsley testified that she was about to unbuckle her seat belt to get out and move her car when she saw the truck backing towards her. She braced herself against the window with her right hand, also hoping to catch Mr. Mintiens' attention. This was apparently to no avail. The back of Mr. Mintiens truck hit the back passenger-side door of Ms. Worsley's car.

         Upon feeling his vehicle collide with something, Mr. Mintiens looked around, believing he may have hit a pothole. When he saw Ms. Worsley's car, he pulled forward and got out of his truck. Mr. Mintiens examined the damage done to Ms. Worsley's car, offered to pay for it, made a suggestion how to take the dent out of the side door, and exchanged information with Ms. Worsley before driving home.

         Ms. Worsley testified that, although she went home with her husband after the accident, she later sought medical treatment for injuries to her neck, back, left arm and shoulder, and right hand.

         B. Legal Proceedings

         1. District Court

         A little over nine months after the accident, on July 25, 2016, Ms. Worsley filed a complaint against Mr. Mintiens in the District Court of Maryland sitting in Baltimore County, alleging negligence and seeking compensation for her injuries. The parties appeared for trial on November 3, 2016. At trial, both Ms. Worsley and Mr. Mintiens testified, recounting their respective versions of the accident. The District Court stated that it would likely find that Mr. Mintiens was negligent and liable, except that the defense of contributory negligence applied to relieve him of liability.

         The District Court explained that Ms. Worsley's husband failed to exercise ordinary care when he parked perpendicular to a handicapped space, right behind Mr. Mintiens' truck, rather than in a parking space in the restaurant lot. The District Court found that this negligence contributed to the accident. Citing Bowser v. Resh, 170 Md.App. 614 (2006), the District Court relied on the doctrine of imputed negligence to ascribe the negligence of Ms. Worsley's husband to the owner of the car - Ms. Worsley. Under that doctrine, an owner of a vehicle who allows someone else to drive while remaining present as a passenger may be held liable for any negligence of the driver. Because the negligence of Ms. Worsley's husband was therefore imputed to her, Ms. Worsley was deemed to be contributorily negligent. Accordingly, the court entered judgment in favor of Mr. Mintiens.

         Ms. Worsley appealed to the Circuit Court under Maryland Rule 7-113.

         2. Appeal to the Circuit Court

         After hearing oral argument from the parties, the Circuit Court affirmed the District Court ruling in an order dated May 5, 2017. The Circuit Court found that there was substantial evidence in the record to support a finding that both Mr. Mintiens and Ms. Worsley's husband were negligent. The Circuit Court agreed that, under the doctrine of imputed negligence, there was a rebuttable presumption that Ms. Worsley, as sole owner of her car, had control over her husband's operation of it and would be vicariously liable for his negligence. The Circuit Court stated that, because the District Court found no evidence to rebut the presumption, it properly imputed her husband's negligence to Ms. Worsley. As a result, Ms. Worsley's claim failed under the doctrine of contributory negligence.

         Ms. Worsley petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari, which we granted.

         II ...

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