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Wright v. Mohler

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

August 14, 2019

DEVIN WRIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRISTOPHER A. MOHLER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE J. HAZEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         In this personal injury dispute, Plaintiff Devin Wright, a resident of Maryland, alleges that Defendant Christopher A. Mohler, a resident of Ohio, was negligent when the parties were involved in a car accident on the morning of December 14, 2015. Plaintiff seeks greater than $75, 000 in damages. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 29. No. hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 59, is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         During the late evening of December 3, 2015 and the early morning hours of the following day, Plaintiff and three of his friends were drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis while celebrating a birthday. ECF No. 29-2 at 10.[1] Plaintiff decided to drive the four of them to one of the friends' homes to continue the celebration. Id. Along the way, Plaintiff hit a curb while making a turn from St. Patrick's Drive onto Billingsley Road and the vehicle became disabled, coming to a rest on Billingsley Road and “mostly or fully” blocking the right lane and partially blocking the left lane. Id; ECF No. 29-5 at 15. Plaintiff exited the car and remained standing in the road to assess the damage. ECF No. 30-5 at 3.

         Defendant was driving his vehicle down Billingsley Road and, by his own words, did not notice the disabled vehicle until he exited the intersection of St. Patrick's Drive and Billingsley Road, approximately 20-30 feet from the vehicle. ECF No. 29-5 at 10, 14. Defendant attempted to evade Plaintiff's car by switching into the left lane but was unsuccessful in doing so because the disabled vehicle partially blocked the left lane. Id. at 10. Defendant's car hit both Plaintiff and his car, causing severe injuries. ECF No. 29-8 at 3. The parties dispute whether the disabled vehicle's lights were illuminated at the time of the collision. Compare ECF No. 29-4 ¶ 9 (Defendant affidavit stating the lights were not illuminated) with ECF No. 30-4 at 9 (photo taken after the accident depicting the headlight switch set to “on”). Plaintiff was taken to Prince George's Hospital Center for medical treatment, where his blood alcohol concentration was measured at .11 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. ECF No. 29-6 at 7; 29-7 at 2.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, summary judgment is appropriate only when the Court, viewing the record as a whole and in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, determines that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that there exists no genuine dispute of material fact. Pulliam Inv. Co. v. Cameo Props., 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir. 1987). To defeat the motion, the nonmoving party must submit evidence showing facts sufficient for a fair-minded jury to reasonably return a verdict for that party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986). Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56, a party must set forth admissible facts to be considered in support of or opposition to a motion for summary judgment. See Williams v. Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Dep't, 86 F.Supp. 398, 407 (D. Md. 2015).

         III. DISCUSSION

         To establish a claim for negligence in Maryland, a plaintiff must prove “a duty owed to the plaintiff, ” “a breach of that duty; a causal relationship between the breach and the harm; and damages suffered.” Walpert, Smullian * Blumental, P.A. v. Katz, 361 Md. 645, 655 (Md. 2000). Of these requirements, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment contends only that Plaintiff cannot establish that Defendant breached any duty of care to Plaintiff. ECF No. 29-1 at 11.

         A driver has a duty to use ordinary care in the operation of a motor vehicle, which includes the duty to “both ‘observe carefully the road in front of them' and ‘be reasonably aware of what is occurring along the sides of a street or highway.'” Ayala v. Lee, 215 Md.App. 457, 469 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2013) (quoting Morris v. Williams, 258 Md. 625, 628 (Md. 1970)). A defendant's “failure to see the plaintiff does not relieve him of responsibility . . . [w]hen weather conditions or darkness are such as to interfere with or shade the view of the road, it only serves to increase the degree of care required of a driver.” Vizzini v. Dopkin, 176 Md. 639, 643 (Md. 1939).

         Defendant failed to see Plaintiff's vehicle until he was 20-30 feet away, which did not leave him enough time to avoid a collision. “Whether there is sufficient proof of a breach of duty is generally ‘a question of fact to be decided by the fact-finder, '” and this case is no exception. Lloyd v. Frontera Produce, Ltd., No. WDQ-13-2232, 2014 WL 4825641, at *10 (D. Md. 2014) (quoting Valentine v. On Target, Inc., 353 Md. 544, 550 (Md. 1999)). Though the sun had not yet risen, it is for a finder of fact to determine whether the lighting conditions on the road were such that, had he been exercising ordinary care, Defendant would have seen Plaintiff's vehicle from further than 20-30 feet away. Notably, the parties dispute whether Plaintiff's headlights were on, a material fact that could clarify whether Defendant should have seen the vehicle sooner. Therefore, the Court does not find that “it is clear from the uncontracted evidence in the case that there is no rational ground upon which” a finder of fact could determine that Defendant was not negligent in striking Plaintiff's vehicle. Domeski v. Atl. Refining Co., 202 Md. 562, 566 (Md. 1953).

         Defendant contends that a series of cases support his argument that, as a matter of law, Plaintiff cannot establish the breach of a duty. Defendant rightly notes that “negligence is not presumed from the mere happening of a motor vehicle collision.” Brehm v. Lorenz, 206 Md. 500, 508 (1955); see also Cabrera v. W. Express, Inc., No. SAG-12-cv-0041, 2012 WL 4105684, at *2-3 (D. Md. 2012). But both Brehm and Cabrera discussed car accidents in which there was no evidence whatsoever in support of the plaintiffs' claims of negligence. Here, Defendant's own testimony that he did not see the disabled vehicle until he was 20-30 feet away could lead a reasonable finder of fact to conclude that he did not keep a proper lookout, especially if the finder of fact concludes that the disabled vehicle's headlights were on.

         However, the State of Maryland has adopted the doctrine of contributory negligence, in which “a plaintiff who fails to exercise ordinary care for his or her own safety, and thus contributes proximately to his or her injury, ‘is barred from all recovery, regardless of the quantum of a defendant's primary negligence.'” Coleman v. Soccer Ass'n of Columbia, 432 Md. 679, 696 (Md. 2013) (Harrel, J., dissenting) (quoting Harrison v. Montgomery Cty. Bd. of Ed., 295 Md. 442, 451 (Md. 1983)). “The burden of proving contributory negligence rests on the defendant.” Woolridge v. Abrishami, 233 Md.App. 278, 302 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2017).

         Courts have consistently held that a pedestrian who crosses a roadway who “fails to look for approaching motor vehicles, or, if having looked . . . fails to see such a vehicle and so fails to guard against being struck by it” is guilty of contributory negligence. See, e.g., Love v. State, 217 Md. 290, 297 (Md. 1958). Even while walking in a cross-walk, where a pedestrian has the right-of-way over on-coming traffic, a pedestrian has a duty to “use his eyes, and thus protect himself from danger.” Merrifield v. C. Hoffberger Co., 147 Md. 134, 142 (Md. 1925). The same rule must apply to a pedestrian who chooses, for no apparently urgent reason, to remain in a roadway while inspecting a car after an accident. See Domeski, 202 Md. at 566-67 (“[A] pedestrian must use such caution for his own safety as a person of ordinary prudence would exercise under similar circumstances . . . where a pedestrian sees an approaching automobile, and the traffic lane is so narrow that either he or the automobile must move outside of it in order that the automobile may pass, he ought to allow the car to proceed.”) And though, just as in a case of ...


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