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In Seaborne-Worsley v. Mintiens, 2018 Md. LEXIS 188 (2018) the doctrine of imputed negligence suffers yet another blow

In Seaborne-Worsley v. Mintiens the Court of Appeals of Maryland reexamined the doctrine of imputed negligence as it relates to contributory negligence on the part of an injured owner-passenger. In an acerbic opinion by Judge McDonald, the Court further limited the already withering doctrine's application.

The pertinent facts of the case are as follows: Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley was a passenger in a vehicle operated by her husband, and they were both on their way to pick up a take-out order. Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley was the sole owner of the vehicle. Mr. Worsley drove the vehicle into the parking lot of the restaurant and stopped the vehicle perpendicular to the handicapped parking spaces, outside of the carry out window of the restaurant. Notably, Mr. Worsley did not park his vehicle in a designated parking spot. Mr. Worsley then exited his vehicle and Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley remained in the car in the front passenger seat. As Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley waited in the car, Mr. Mintiens exited the restaurant and entered his vehicle, which was parked in a parking spot. As Mr. Mintiens exited his vehicle he backed his vehicle into the Worsley vehicle, causing injury to Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley.

In Seaborne-Worsley v. Mintiens the Court of Appeals of Maryland reexamined the doctrine of imputed negligence as it relates to contributory negligence on the part of an injured owner-passenger. In an acerbic opinion by Judge McDonald, the Court further limited the already withering doctrine's application.

The pertinent facts of the case are as follows: Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley was a passenger in a vehicle operated by her husband, and they were both on their way to pick up a take-out order. Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley was the sole owner of the vehicle. Mr. Worsley drove the vehicle into the parking lot of the restaurant and stopped the vehicle perpendicular to the handicapped parking spaces, outside of the carry out window of the restaurant. Notably, Mr. Worsley did not park his vehicle in a designated parking spot. Mr. Worsley then exited his vehicle and Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley remained in the car in the front passenger seat. As Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley waited in the car, Mr. Mintiens exited the restaurant and entered his vehicle, which was parked in a parking spot. As Mr. Mintiens exited his vehicle he backed his vehicle into the Worsley vehicle, causing injury to Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley.

At trial in the District Court, and at the record appeal to the Circuit Court, Mr. Mintiens successfully invoked the doctrine of imputed negligence to bar Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley from recovery. Traditionally, the doctrine of imputed negligence dictates that when the owner of a vehicle is a passenger in said vehicle and allows another individual to drive, any negligence of the operator can be imputed to the owner. Merritt v. Darden, 227 Md. 589, 176 A.2d 205 (1962). The logic behind the doctrine was based on the presumption that the owner of a vehicle, despite not manning the wheel, remains in control of the vehicle, or, at minimum, has the right to exercise control. Id.; Slutter v. Homer, 244 Md. 131, 223 A.2d 141 (1966). Maryland Courts have held that the presumption is rebuttable, and can be defeated by evidence that the owner was, in fact, unable to exercise control over the vehicle. Williams v. Wheeler, 252 Md. 75, 249 A.2d 104 (1969). The doctrine does not serve to impose primary negligence on the owner; rather, it is a version of vicarious liability, making it distinct from separate torts invoking independent negligence on the part of the owner. To put it another way, the doctrine of imputed negligence is only based on the ownership of the car and the owner's presence during the accident.

The doctrine of imputed negligence has been applied not only to hold an owner-passenger vicariously liable for injuries to a third party, but also has served to bar claims by the owner-passenger's own injuries on the basis of contributory negligence. The reasoning is that if the negligence has been imputed to the owner, and the negligence was the proximate cause of the accident, the owner-passenger is technically contributorily negligent, and unable to successfully bring a claim against a third-party for his or her bodily injury. In the case at hand, Mr. Mintiens, through counsel, argued that Mr. Worsley was negligent in stopping his vehicle in the lot and not in a designated parking spot, and since Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley admittedly was the sole owner of the vehicle the negligence of her husband was imputed to her, barring her claim against Mr. Mintiens for not paying attention to where he was going. A technicality, if you will.

The Court of Appeals also viewed Mr. Mintiens' argument with skepticism, recognizing that the law is a living, breathing and evolving thing. Ultimately, the Court held that the application of the doctrine to support a defense of contributory negligence was historically tenuous, and in contradiction with the original purpose of the doctrine; namely, to provide coverage for injured third parties against owners of vehicles when they allow another person to drive their vehicle. In light of developments in the rules of the road and insurance requirements the application of the doctrine in a factual situation like Mrs. Seaborne-Worsley's was now unnecessary, and unduly prohibitive. In support of its opinion, the Court went through each of the policy reasons behind the doctrine, ultimately stating that each of the concerns supporting the original invocation of the doctrine had been ameliorated by developments in the law, as well as statutory requirements for automobile insurance coverage. The Court further pointed out that the controversial use of the doctrine in this context had been slowly chipped away through a litany of cases. See Williams v. Knapp, 248 Md. 506, 237 A.2d 450 (1968); see also Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Stroh, 314 Md. 176, 550 A.2d 373 (1988); Bowser v. Resh, 170 Md. App. 614, 907 A.2d 910 (2006). The Court stated that this litany of cases demonstrates a recognition that the premise of "owner control" is, for all intents and purposes, a fiction, a finding that has also occurred in other jurisdictions. Jokingly, the Court pointed out that if an owner in a passenger seat were to "exercise" that control and attempt to take possession of a car being operated by another person that would equate to actual negligence.

Ultimately, the Court reversed the ruling of the lower courts and struck down the presumption that an owner-passenger injured in an accident is contributorily negligent simply because the permissive driver is negligent. In conclusion, Court made an important distinction that its decision did not stand for the proposition that an owner-passenger cannot ever be contributorily negligent, nor did it serve to bar the invocation of the doctrine entirely. Rather, the Court chose to further limit the doctrine, making it less prohibitive for owner-passengers to prosecute their bodily injury claims.

Contributory negligence is a heavy burden on all plaintiffs, especially those in automobile accident cases. The Court's holding serves to eliminate at least one potential hurdle while representing a party that was injured while he or she was a passenger in his or her own vehicle. The opinion shows the recognition by the Court of the constantly evolving nature of the law, and the balance of precedent and fundamental fairness. If you or someone you know has been seriously injured in an automobile accident contact the litigation department at SBW Law to speak with counsel who have experience dealing with personal injury cases.

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