Court of Special Appeals Rules Against Motorcycle Passenger

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland ruled last week in Shafer v. Interstate Automobile Ins. Co. that a motorcycle passenger – who was injured when the motorcycle on which she was riding blew out a tire – is not entitled to uninsured motorist coverage because she failed to meet her burden of proof that the damage to the tire was caused by negligence of a third party. Accordingly, the court affirmed a Washington County, Maryland trial court judge who granted summary judgment on behalf of defendants Interstate Insurance and Nationwide Insurance.

uninsured motorist

Uninsured motorist law does not mean absolute liability

The Plaintiff’ presented uncontroverted evidence through an accident reconstructionist expert, R. Scott Wills who is a frequent expert in these kinds of cases, that the motorcycle accident was caused by a tire blowout from a piece of sheet metal from an unidentified vehicle that was lodged into the motorcycle’s tires. There was no evidence of contributory negligence by Plaintiff or the operator of the motorcycle. But the unanimous court found that Plaintiff’s case failed because her attorney did not and could not prove “any evidence of the negligent act or course of negligent conduct which resulted in the dislodgment of a metal piece in the roadway.”

In other words, under Maryland Insurance Code Annotated Section 19-509(c)(1), you must be entitled to recover damages from the negligent party. Accordingly, the uninsured motorist insurance carrier in Maryland steps into the shoes of the party whose negligence caused the accident, even if the negligent party is a phantom car that sped away after causing the accident. In this case, there were no shoes to step into because Plaintiff could not point to any negligent party because there was no evidence that the nail was lost due to the negligence of a third party. In fact, logic and reason leads to the opposite conclusion: that the nail dropped from the engine of another car through no fault of the driver.

The court wrote: “Although the owner or operator has an obligation to inspect and maintain his/her motor vehicle, the ability to discern that a metal piece of a vehicle has rusted through to an extent that it will become dislodged is an event which cannot be as easily anticipated as the potential for injury to an invitee and, indeed, is an event which may never occur.” This is, of course, particularly true if the loose nail is not likely to be detected during normal use or maintenance or the car.

The court stated because Plaintiff’s attorneys specifically stated they were not arguing the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, they would not consider authority from two other personal injury cases in other jurisdictions where the doctrine was applied in a similar context: Woosley v. State Farm Insurance, 18 P.3d 317 (Nev. 2001) and Hale v. American Family Mutual Insurance Company, 927 S.W.2d 522 (1996). But even if the plaintiff’s attorneys had argued res ipsa loquitur, it is difficult to argue that a nail is not usually placed in the roadway in absence of negligence.  That the key to applying res ipsa: negligence likely would have occurred in the absence of negligence.  This is why the trial lawyers did not push the res ipsa angle.  It was a dead loser.

Regrettably, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals really had no choice in this case but to find for the insurance companies. The Maryland uninsured motorist statute does not allow for absolute liability.  Instead, it allows for recovery when a negligent third party has no insurance coverage or limited insurance coverage.

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