Summer 2018

Imputed Contributory Negligence: Seaborne-Worsley v. Mintiens

Maryland is in the minority of states which apply the legal doctrine of contributory negligence. Under this standard, when a plaintiff’s failure to exercise ordinary care is a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries in any way, the plaintiff is barred from recovery, regardless of whether the defendant’s negligence was also a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries. A recent decision handed down by the highest court in Maryland significantly alters the manner in which a defendant can utilize this defense through a reformation of the doctrine of imputed negligence.

In Seaborne-Worsley v. Mintiens, the Court of Appeals of Maryland examined the doctrine of imputed negligence. In that case, the owner-passenger Plaintiff filed suit against the defendant for bodily injuries sustained in an automobile collision in a parking lot. The plaintiff was a passenger in the vehicle that she owned which was driven by her husband. Plaintiff’s husband had not parked the vehicle in a spot, instead parking it behind, and perpendicular to, the defendant’s vehicle. Defendant’s vehicle backed out and the collision took place. At trial, the defendant argued that the plaintiff’s husband was contributorily negligent, and as such, said negligence should be imputed to the plaintiff. The court ultimately agreed and entered judgment in favor of the defendant. Following the appeal process, the case was heard by the Court of Appeals of Maryland.

Under the classic formulation of the doctrine of imputed negligence, when the owner of a vehicle is a passenger in that vehicle and allows another person to drive, any negligence of the operator of the vehicle may be attributed to the owner. The doctrine is based on the presumption that the owner, although not at the wheel, is in control of the vehicle, or at least has the right to exert control.

The Court of Appeals of Maryland in Seaborne-Worsley considered whether, assuming the plaintiff’s husband was in fact negligent, whether said negligence could be imputed to the plaintiff. The Court of Appeals ultimately held that said negligence could not be imputed to the plaintiff. The Court stated that the original purpose of the doctrine of imputed negligence was “to extend liability to the owner of this marvel of modern technology was seen as necessary for ensuring compensation for an injured innocent party and for spreading risk.” The Court argued against the application of the doctrine in modern day legal matters stating “the doctrine of imputed negligence, created out of a ‘felt necessity’ for compensating innocent victims of automobile accidents, has lost much of its reason for being while weaknesses in its theoretical foundation have been exposed.”

Therefore, the Court stated it “will no longer indulge a presumption that an owner-passenger who was injured in an automobile accident had operational control over a permissive driver of the vehicle and is therefore responsible for any negligence of the driver.” As such, the Court affirmatively held the doctrine of imputed negligence does not apply to deem an owner-passenger of a motor vehicle contributorily negligent based on the negligence of a permissive driver of the owner-passenger’s vehicle and bar the owner-passenger from recovering compensation from a negligent third party.

Ultimately, this case highlights the potential issues in litigating cases where the plaintiff is a passenger in their own vehicle which is involved in an accident. Based on this ruling, gone are the days that a defendant cannot rely on the presumption that the contributory negligence of a permissive drive is imputed to an owner-passenger injured in an accident. As such, this presents defendants to potential exposure for an owner-passenger where such exposure may not have existed in the past.

For more information about this article, please contact Patrick Wachter at 410.230.3633.