Coleman v. Soccer Ass'n of Columbia, No. 9

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtEldridge
PartiesJAMES COLEMAN v. SOCCER ASSOCIATION OF COLUMBIA
Docket NumberNo. 9
Decision Date09 July 2013

JAMES COLEMAN
v.
SOCCER ASSOCIATION OF COLUMBIA

No. 9

COURT OF APPEALS OF MARYLAND

September Term, 2012
Filed: July 9, 2013


*Bell, C. J.
Harrell
Battaglia
Greene
McDonald
Eldridge, John C. (Retired, Specially
Assigned)
Raker, Irma S.(Retired, Specially
Assigned)

JJ.

Opinion by Eldridge, J.
Bell, C.J. and Harrell, J., dissent
Battaglia, Greene, McDonald and Raker, JJ. Concur.

Bell, C.J., participated in the hearing of this case, in
the conference in regard to its decision and in the
adoption of the opinion, but he had retired from the
Court prior to the filing of the opinion.

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Thirty years ago, in Harrison v. Montgomery County Bd. of Educ., 295 Md. 442, 444, 456 A.2d 894 (1983), this Court issued a writ of certiorari to decide "whether the common law doctrine of contributory negligence should be judicially abrogated in Maryland and the doctrine of comparative negligence adopted in its place as the rule governing trial of negligence actions in this State." In a comprehensive opinion by then Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, the Court in Harrison, 295 Md. at 463, 456 A.2d at 905, declined to abandon the doctrine of contributory negligence in favor of comparative negligence, pointing out that such change "involves fundamental and basic public policy considerations properly to be addressed by the legislature."

The petitioner in the case at bar presents the same issue that was presented in Harrison, namely whether this Court should change the common law and abrogate the defense of contributory negligence in certain types of tort actions. After reviewing the issue again, we shall arrive at the same conclusion that the Court reached in Harrison.

I.

The petitioner and plaintiff below, James Kyle Coleman, was an accomplished soccer player who had volunteered to assist in coaching a team of young soccer players in a program of the Soccer Association of Columbia, in Howard County, Maryland. On August 19, 2008, Coleman, at the time 20 years old, was assisting the coach during the practice of a team of young soccer players on the field of the Lime Kiln Middle School. While the Soccer Association of Columbia had fields of its own, it did not have enough to accommodate all of the program's young soccer players; the Association was required to use school fields for practices. At some point during the practice, Coleman kicked a soccer ball into a soccer goal. As he passed under the goal's metal top rail, or

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crossbar, to retrieve the ball, he jumped up and grabbed the crossbar. The soccer goal was not anchored to the ground, and, as he held on to the upper crossbar, Coleman fell backwards, drawing the weight of the crossbar onto his face. He suffered multiple severe facial fractures which required surgery and the placing of three titanium plates in his face. Coleman instituted the present action by filing a complaint, in the Circuit Court for Howard County, alleging that he was injured by the defendants' negligence.1 The defendant and respondent, the Soccer Association of Columbia, asserted the defense of contributory negligence.

At the ensuing jury trial, the soccer coach who had invited Coleman to help coach the soccer players testified that he had not inspected or anchored the goal which fell on Coleman. The coach also testified that the goal was not owned or provided by the Soccer Association, and he did not believe that it was his responsibility to anchor the goal. During the trial, the parties disputed whether the goal was located in an area under the supervision and control of the Soccer Association and whether the Soccer Association was required to inspect and anchor the goal. The Soccer Association presented testimony tending to show that, because the goal was not owned by the Soccer Association, the Soccer Association owed no duty to Coleman. The Soccer Association also presented testimony that the condition of the goal was open and

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obvious to all persons. The Association maintained that the accident was caused solely by Coleman's negligence.

Testimony was provided by Coleman to the effect that players commonly hang from soccer goals and that his actions should have been anticipated and expected by the Soccer Association. Coleman also provided testimony that anchoring goals is a standard safety practice in youth soccer.

At the close of evidence, Coleman's attorney proffered a jury instruction on comparative negligence.2 The judge declined to give Coleman's proffered comparative negligence instruction and, instead, instructed the jury on contributory negligence.

The jury was given a verdict sheet posing several questions. The first question was: "Do you find that the Soccer Association of Columbia was negligent?" The jury answered "yes" to this question. The jury also answered "yes" to the question: "Do you find that the Soccer Association of Columbia's negligence caused the Plaintiff's injuries?" Finally, the jury answered "yes" to the question: "Do you find that the Plaintiff was negligent and that his negligence contributed to his claimed injuries?"

In short, the jury concluded that the Soccer Association of Columbia was

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negligent and that the Soccer Association's negligence caused Coleman's injuries. The jury also found that Coleman was negligent, and that his negligence contributed to his own injuries. Because of the contributory negligence finding, Coleman was barred from any recovery. The trial court denied Coleman's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and subsequently entered judgment in favor of the Soccer Association of Columbia.

Coleman filed a notice of appeal, and the Soccer Association filed a notice of cross-appeal.3 Before briefing and argument in the Court of Special Appeals, Coleman filed in this Court a petition for a writ of certiorari, which was granted. Coleman v. Soccer Ass'n of Columbia, 425 Md. 396, 41 A.3d 570 (2012). In his petition, Coleman posed only one question: whether this Court should retain the standard of contributory negligence as the common law standard governing negligence cases in the State of Maryland.

We shall hold that, although this Court has the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence, we decline to abrogate Maryland's long-established common law principle of contributory negligence.

II.

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This Court last addressed the continuing viability of the contributory negligence doctrine in Harrison v. Montgomery County Bd. of Educ., supra, 295 Md. 442, 456 A.2d 894. In Harrison, the Court held that the contributory negligence principle remained the valid standard in Maryland negligence cases and that "any change in the established doctrine [was for] the Legislature." 295 Md. at 463, 456 A.2d at 905.

Chief Judge Murphy, for the Court in Harrison, began his review of the contributory negligence standard by tracing the standard's historical origins to Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough's opinion in Butterfield v. Forrester, 11 East 60, 103 Eng. Rep. 926 (K.B. 1809).4 As Harrison explained the case,

"Butterfield left a public inn at dusk, mounted his horse and rode off 'violently' down the street. Forrester, who was effecting some repairs to his house, had placed a pole in the roadway. Although Butterfield could have seen and avoided the obstruction, he did not and was injured. The [English] court there noted:
'One person being in fault will not dispense with another's using ordinary care for himself. Two things must concur to support this action, an obstruction in the road by the fault of the defendant, and no want of ordinary care to avoid it on the part of the plaintiff.' [11 East] at 61, 103 Eng. Rep. at 927."

The Harrison opinion explained that, when the contributory negligence standard was first judicially adopted in the United States, the courts at the time were concerned that juries would award to plaintiffs sums that had the potential to stifle "newly

Page 7

developing industry."5 Early American courts were also concerned that they should not adopt a policy in which "courts... assist a wrongdoer who suffered an injury as a result of his own wrongdoing." Harrison, 295 Md. at 450, 456 A.2d at 898. See also Smith v. Smith, 2 Pick. 621, 19 Mass. 621, 624 (1824) (a leading early American case incorporating the contributory negligence bar as part of common law).

This Court, relying on Butterfield v. Forrester, supra, first adopted the standard

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of contributory negligence in Irwin v. Sprigg, 6 Gill. 200, 205 (1847), stating:

"The established doctrine now is, that although the defendant's misconduct may have been the primary cause of the injury complained of, yet the plaintiff cannot recover in an action of this kind, if the proximate and immediate cause of the damage can be traced to a want of ordinary care and caution on his part. Under such circumstances he must bear the consequences of his own recklessness or folly."

The contributory negligence standard was later modified in part by this Court's adoption of the last clear chance doctrine, see N.C.R.R. Co. v. State, Use of Price, 29 Md. 420, 436 (1868), which allowed a plaintiff to recover "if the defendant might, by the exercise of care on its part, have avoided...

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