I stumbled on a Metro Verdicts Monthly from last year that examined the success plaintiffs have at trial in slip and fall cases on snow and ice. In Maryland defendants prevailed 62% of the time.
The difficulty in these cases often lies not with the issue of whether the defendant was negligent, but whether the plaintiff assumed the risk because he/she appreciated the danger of walking on the snow/ice. Under Maryland law, this is assumption of the risk, unless the plaintiff lacked the free will to avoid the danger. This is presumably the case when going to work, entering or leaving your home, and tending to other necessities of life. Moreover, the fact that no reasonable alternative path was available does not reduce the free will standard.
Morgan State v. Walker
Last week, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided the case of Morgan State University v. Walker. In this case, Plaintiff Pamela R. Walker, brought a personal injury lawsuit against Morgan State University alleging that it negligently failed to remove snow from a parking lot during the last great Maryland blizzard in 2003. You know how the story goes from here. Plaintiff was visiting her daughter, walked across the icy parking lot and severely fractured her leg, resulting in about $50,000 in medical bills and, presumably, a permanent injury.
The Baltimore City Circuit Court (I’m not sure who the Judge was) found that Ms. Walker assumed the risk as a matter of law and granted summary judgment to Morgan State University. The Court of Special Appeals reversed, finding that the voluntariness of Ms. Walker’s action was a question for the jury.
The Maryland Court of Appeals disagreed with the Court of Special Appeals and agreed with the trial court’s finding that Ms. Walker assumed the risk of her injuries. While I doubt it was integral to the court’s opinion, the court did note that Ms. Walker had been wearing Timberland boots and stated that “I don’t have any problem with walking or anything like that. Actually, I’m a daredevil to be honest with you.” I cannot imagine Ms. Walker’s attorney was enjoying that testimony at her deposition. You don’t want your client professing to be Evel Knievel (or maybe David Blaine for you younger folks) in a case where the issue is whether you assumed the risk of your injuries.
Our Recent Slip and Fall Verdicts
My partner, Laura G. Zois, tried a case in Anne Arundel County for a slip and fall during the same blizzard as Ms. Walker. The Plaintiff in our case was walking along a common area sidewalk that was not cleared and fell, fracturing her left wrist. Plaintiff incurred $6,554.72 in medical bills. The Defendant made a settlement offer before the trial of $18,750 (State Farm was the insurance company). The jury awarded our client $370,577.
The salient difference between Walker and our case is that our client was walking to her home from her car after working as a neonatal nurse at St. Agnes Hospital. Ms. Walker, on the other hand, was visiting her daughter, a noble endeavor but certainly not one where Plaintiff can argue that she had no choice but to make that trip.
Slip and fall cases are always a battle and you have to bring your “A” game. Laura and I also tried a case in Baltimore a few years after this post and our client received a $537,000 verdict. That was a tough case where the defense threw contributory negligence at us at every single turn.
Take Home Message
The take-home message is that you have to carefully consider the facts before accepting a case. The attorney in this case in the Morgan State case was no doubt seduced by the fact that Ms. Walker had a good damages case. There is no question the woman was seriously injured. But Maryland law is tough on these slip and fall cases on ice and snow and each case has to be carefully evaluated to make sure that the prospective client did not assume the risk of his or her injuries.