Federal District Court Applies Contributory Negligence Doctrine to Car Accident Case

Last month, this blog discussed an opinion of the Maryland Court of Appeals issued in the case of Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, which many legal scholars thought would be an opportunity for the Court to finally strike down Maryland’s outdated doctrine of contributory negligence. The Court did not do so, ultimately holding that the question of whether to get rid of contributory negligence in Maryland is an issue for the state legislature to handle.

As this blog has discussed before, Maryland is one of only five jurisdictions in the United States that continues to use the legal doctrine of contributory negligence. The doctrine of contributory negligence states that, if a plaintiff’s failure to exercise due care contributes to the cause of an accident, he or she will be totally precluded from recovering damages from the other party.

Most jurisdictions now operate under the theory of comparative negligence, which allows an injured party to recover damages to the extent for which the other party was at fault for an accident that results in injury. For instance, the recovery of a plaintiff who is deemed to be 30% liable for an accident would be limited to 70% of the total amount of his or her damages.

In June of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was called on to determine the applicability of Maryland’s contributory negligence doctrine in a car accident case. In Saravia v. Chen, U.S. Ct. App., 4th Cir. (2013), the plaintiffs sued New Century Travel, Inc., and its employee, De Yue Chen, in connection with a fatal automobile accident. The plaintiffs contended that Chen’s negligence caused the accident. Because the parties were from different states, the action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

The defendants were granted summary judgment after the District Court concluded that the deceased driver’s negligence had contributed to the cause of the accident, therefore barring any recovery.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that the decedent was contributorily negligent by getting out of his truck, and walking into an active highway lane at night in a poorly lit area. The plaintiffs argued that, even if the decedent was contributorily negligent, the last clear doctrine should have applied to allow them to recover.

The last clear doctrine applies when a defendant has “a fresh opportunity to avert the consequences of his original negligence and the plaintiff’s contributory negligence,” but fails to do so. When a defendant has a chance to prevent the consequence of his negligence, but does not take advantage of it, he can be held liable despite the plaintiff’s contributory negligence.

The Fourth Circuit found that the doctrine did not apply because the decedent’s negligence occurred concurrently with the defendant’s negligence, and therefore there was no fresh opportunity for the defendant to have avoided the accident.

The qualified attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience representing individuals who have been injured by the negligent driving of another. If you or someone you know has been injured in a car accident, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.