05 Jul 2016

Soccer field accident could remake Maryland personal injury law

The collapse of a soccer goal on a Howard County practice field has led the state’s highest court to reconsider more than 150 years of personal injury law, in a case that could significantly improve injured plaintiffs’ chances of winning payouts.

The case — which began when a crossbar crashed into then-20-year-old Kyle Coleman’s face, crushing the bones around his eye — has drawn national attention, as Maryland’s unusual legal standard meets its first judicial test in decades.

Maryland is one of only four states, plus the District of Columbia, that bar injured people from winning lawsuits if they had any role in an accident — even if a jury finds the defendant in their suit deserved a much greater share of the blame. Most other courts allow juries to assign responsibility to each party, and award damages accordingly.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Medical Association, which oppose changing that standard, warn of increased insurance rates, careless behavior and a spike in frivolous suits. Trial lawyers and others fighting for a reversal argue that Maryland should recognize that even people who are partially responsible for their injuries should have a chance to recover damages.

“It’s a familiar position for us, the little guy,” said Bruce Plaxen, one of Coleman’s lawyers. “The big guns all were against us. It’s the little guy against the Chamber of Commerce and corporate America.”

On the other side, lawyers argue if the court wades in and disrupts the long-settled law, the result would be chaos. The General Assembly, which they argue would take a broader, more carefully considered view, is the right place to attempt a change.

Coleman, who has three titanium plates in his head as a result of his injures, sued the Soccer Association of Columbia, the group that was running the practice in 2008 when the accident occurred. In a late-summer soccer practice at Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton, Coleman was taking a few warm-up shots at an empty goal. He grabbed the goal’s crossbar as he passed underneath to retrieve a ball, and it fell over.

A Howard County jury found the association was at fault in Coleman’s injury because it did not properly secure the goal.

But because the jury also found that Coleman was at least partly responsible for the accident, he did not receive any payout.

Coleman’s lawyers appealed and the Court of Appeals recently heard two hours of argument on the standard, known as contributory negligence.

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