Articles Posted in Civil Damages

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bottles-1235327_960_720Maryland’s highest court recently released a potentially groundbreaking opinion by ruling that adults may be liable for the actions of underage drinkers whom they provided alcohol. The ruling stems from two cases involving auto accidents where intoxicated teenagers were the drivers. The plaintiff in the Baltimore County case was walking her dog when she was struck by an SUV driven by an 18-year-old that had been drinking at the home of the defendant. The defendant had allegedly provided mixed drinks to the teenaged driver, and made no effort to assure that the young man would not get behind the wheel that night. The other case stemmed from a tragic accident that occurred in Howard County back in 2009. The plaintiff is the family of a 17-year-old that was killed as he was the passenger in the flat bed of a pickup truck driven by his allegedly intoxicated friend. The lawsuit states that the driver had been drinking in the garage of the defendant’s home with full knowledge of the defendant.

Both lawsuits target a third party that is claimed to be liable for damages caused by another individual, which in these cases are the two teenaged drivers. This theory of indirect third party “social host” liability is tough to prove and until now has never been recognized in Maryland. Upwards of 20 states have dram shop laws that allow liability of establishments arising from the sale of visibly intoxicated individuals that later cause injuries to another, but our state is not one of them. While this Court of Appeals ruling does not address dram shop, it will now pave the way for future civil actions against adults that furnish alcohol to minors. The court opined that young adults under the age of 21 are not competent to handle the potentially dangerous effects of alcohol, and are more susceptible to harming themselves or others when presented with the opportunity to drink in excess. According to the court some of the onus must fall on an adult that was present, and facilitated the conduct.

This appeals court ruling addresses civil liability, and it coincidentally comes at a time when the legislator has just expanded criminal liability for adults that furnish alcohol to minors. In May the governor approved a bill that will soon allow judges to incarcerate adults for up to one year if he or she provided alcohol to an underage drinker that subsequently injures or kills another person while driving a motor vehicle. This jail time provision was not present in the old statute, which under section 10-117 of the criminal code had a maximum punishment of a $2,500 fine for a first offense and $5,000 for a second offense. There will still be fines under the new law and the possibility of a misdemeanor criminal conviction, but jail time will only become a sentencing option in there is a serious bodily injury. Some lawmakers attempted to add a jail provision regardless of the minor causing an injury, though this version did not pass the General Assembly.

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police-224426_640Not that they deserve one, but the Baltimore Police               Department cannot catch a break. After months of negative publicity surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, dozens of new accusations of police brutality, spiking crime rates, and allegations of lack of leadership that led to the firing of their top cop, the department is back in the news. This time the news is for an incident that happened five years ago, but these days any tidbit of information about cops in Maryland’s largest city will make headlines. Back 2010 a federal department of defense employee was arrested for violating the city’s loitering law, when he allegedly refused to enter a Baltimore Street business or keep walking. Although prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, and the criminal case has since been expunged, the man spent 12 hours in jail and missed work the next day. He hired an attorney after the incident, and a lawsuit against the city was ultimately filed. After both parties failed to reach a settlement agreement the case proceeded to jury trial in the circuit court for claims of battery, false imprisonment, and false arrest.

At trial the man testified that he was not violating the loitering law, and to the contrary he was arrested for simply talking back to the police officer. The man also testified that although the criminal charge has been expunged, record of his arrest still exists in his FBI criminal background database. This has apparently prevented him from moving up the ladder and earing higher wages while working at the Pentagon. While Maryland has a user friendly expungement process, the FBI, who keeps records of all arrests and criminal charges, is under no obligation to follow a state order to expunge a record. This is a common problem, and a tough pill to swallow for any person who is wrongfully arrested or prosecuted. At the close of the case the jury awarded damages in the amount of $272,790 in favor of the plaintiff. The city appealed, but then agreed to settle for an even $200,000.

The verdict and eventual settlement may seem high considering that the man was not injured, and the criminal case was expunged before it went to court. But the arresting officer who was the target of the civil suit was the opposite of a defendant warranting sympathy. In 2011 the officer was convicted for his role in a city towing scandal where officers were illegally paid by a body shop to refer customers, and falsified accident reports to increase damage claims. The officer served 8 months in federal prison and was fired from the police department. He was also the subject of two other large civil settlements against the Baltimore police; in one case he was accused of breaking a woman’s wrist after pulling her from a car, and in the other case he was accused of beating a handcuffed man. After the city recently settled his third civil case, the cop went on record as stating the settlement was “unbelievable” because the plaintiff had no injuries. These comments prove the shamed ex-cop still doesn’t get it, as you simply cannot put a price on wrongfully arresting, jailing, and prosecuting an innocent person. The officer apparenlty wants his job back, which actually is unbelievable. All the city needs right now is to reinstate an ex-cop convicted of fraud and corruption in federal court, and three times accused of beating, injuring, and wrongfully arresting the citizens he was sworn to protect. Unbelievable indeed, although delusional might be more accurate.

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1330873_courthouse.jpgThere are not many civil law topics worthy of a post on a criminal law blog, but the revival of the contributory negligence debate is one topic that deserves an exception. The Maryland civil justice system is one of four states plus Washington D.C. that uses the contributory negligence standard in all civil lawsuits. The contributory negligence standard bars recovery for a party that contributed in any manner to the accident or injury. If a plaintiff brings a civil lawsuit he or she may not recover a dime if the defense lawyers show that the plaintiff was negligent. For example, in a pedestrian accident case if the defense lawyer that represents the driver of the vehicle that hit the pedestrian shows that the pedestrian negligently ran across the street, then the pedestrian may not legally recover any damages. Even if the plaintiff’s lawyer has shown the driver who caused the accident was speeding and driving recklessly.

Most states use the comparative negligence standard, which allows the plaintiff to recover damages even if he or she was negligent in causing the accident or injury. If the jury finds that the plaintiff deserves a verdict, the jury will be instructed to subtract their award of damages based on the percentage of the plaintiff’s negligence or fault. If the plaintiff proves $100,000 damages but was 10 percent negligent in causing the accident, then the jury will be instructed to award a verdict of $90,000. The contributory negligence standard does occasionally cross over to the criminal justice system, when there is evidence that the plaintiff of an injury case was under the influence of drugs such as marijuana or prescription medication, or if the plaintiff was driving and drinking alcohol, but not to the level that would rise to DUI. The comparative negligence standard in civil cases is highly favorable to the plaintiff, and Maryland trial lawyers have been fighting to change the standard for years. Maryland trial lawyers argue that the contributory negligence standard is too harsh, and unjustly bars recovery. The trial lawyers also argue that everyday citizens are denied access to the civil justice system, because trial lawyers cannot afford to take on cases that may be thrown out due to the slightest bit of contributory negligence. On the other hand, the insurance companies argue that the contributory negligence system keeps frivolous lawsuits out of the court system, and keeps Maryland insurance premiums in check.
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Video recording police officers making arrests, writing traffic citations, or even interacting with citizens in non criminal settings has been a hot topic in the last few years throughout Maryland, and especially in Baltimore City. Many police departments around the country have dashboard cameras which record traffic stops, DUI arrests, and even automobile searches for weapons and drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. However, in Maryland most police departments do not record their officers’ interactions with civilians, and even with automatic dash dams the majority of police and civilian interactions go unrecorded. As a result, police officers have little checks on their power and can abuse their authority when interacting with civilians. In recent years though the public has fought back with an unlikely weapon, using cell phones to keep police officers under raps.

Almost every cell phone sold in America has a camera, and citizens fed up with police abuse of power are using these cameras as a check on police behavior. Countless abusive police interactions have shown up on YouTube, and an abundance of civil lawsuits have been filed by lawyers against police departments. Not surprisingly, police officers in Baltimore City and other jurisdictions in Maryland have not taken a liking to this new trend. There have been various documented incidents of police officers becoming angry upon seeing that they are being recorded by civilians, and some of these incidents end up in an illegal arrest not for committing a crime, but for simply documenting an officers actions. This issue has garnered national media attention and in the past year a civil lawsuit against the Baltimore City police caught the eye of the United States Department of Justice or DOJ.
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1384588_brown_envelope_money_bribe_1.jpgThe city of Washington D.C. has agreed to settle four civil lawsuits over false DUI convictions. The civil claims for damages were filed back in 2010 by 4 men whose DUI convictions were tainted by inaccurate breath alcohol testing machines. The city has agreed to pay a total of $20,000 plus attorney’s fees to the 4 plaintiffs. Two of the plaintiffs will receive $5000, and the other two will receive $8,000 and $2,000 respectively. The lawsuit alleged that city officials and police were aware that the breath alcohol testing machines were flawed, but continued to use them in criminal DUI prosecutions. As early as 2008 an independent expert informed the city that their breath alcohol machines were not providing accurate results for a variety of reasons. The machines used in D.C. are similar to the Intoxilyzer machines used in Maryland, and require regular maintenance and calibration. D.C. officials failed to do either, but that does not even tell half the story of the city’s dishonest and fraudulent behavior.

Not only did Washington D.C. officials choose to ignore their independent expert’s advice to maintain and calibrate the machines, they also continued to proffer to the courts that the machines had been tested. Thus trained breath technicians at the Attorney General’s office deliberately mislead the court during criminal DUI prosecutions. City officials and the Attorney General also failed to disclose their knowledge of the Intoxilyler’s inaccuracy to the defendants and their criminal defense lawyers via the city prosecutor’s office. It is unknown whether prosecutors were aware of the Intoxilyzer inaccuracies, but if they were and failed to disclose this exculpatory “Brady” evidence, then the city prosecutors would have committed an egregious ethical violation. In summary, the city neglected to maintain their alcohol testing machines after being told to do so, failed to disclose their knowledge of the machine’s inaccuracies, and then willfully and intentionally lied about both. Even more disturbing is the direct effect that this dishonest behavior had on the named DUI defendants.
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ink-spill2.jpgMaryland Police have charged a truck driver with DUI after the driver crashed his tractor trailer on interstate 95 in Baltimore. The apparent drunk driving accident occurred on February 15, on an overpass above interstate 895. Investigators do not know the exact cause of the crash, but the driver likely lost control causing the truck to turn over in the left lane of 95, just north of the Baltimore harbor tunnel. The allegedly intoxicated truck driver was carrying thousands of gallons of a water based chemical additive used in making concrete. Maryland police have yet to release the blood alcohol content of the accused driver, nor did the police divulge whether the driver submitted to a breath or blood alcohol test.

The chemical spilled from the truck was deemed on the scene to not be toxic, although gallons of diesel fuel were also spilled in the crash. According to Maryland police, the crash resulted in the temporary closure of both interstates, leading to major delays for drivers passing through one of Baltimore’s busiest stretches of highway. The closure lasted almost 7 hours while police and environmental crews worked diligently to clean up the spill and assure the highway was safe to reopen. The chemicals and the diesel fuel reportedly were seen dripping off the overpass and on to cars traveling to and from Baltimore city.

Police were still investigating the accident at the time that the driver was arrested to determine the exact cause of the crash. Other charges were filed against the driver in addition to driving under the influence of alcohol according to the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. The driver was ticketed for negligent driving, failure to obey lane direction, and a federal trucking regulation that prohibits drinking alcohol prior to operating a commercial vehicle.
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