Maryland Retains Contributory Negligence

In an interesting decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided to retain the traditional doctrine of contributory rather than comparative fault.  See Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia, No. 9-2012 (Md. July 9, 2013). 

Several decades ago, the court in Harrison v. Montgomery County Bd. of Educ., 295 Md. 442, 444, 456 A.2d 894 (1983), addressed whether the common law doctrine of contributory negligence should be judicially abrogated in Maryland and the doctrine of comparative negligence adopted in its place.  The court 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.”

In Coleman, the petitioner presented the same issue that was presented in Harrison, namely whether the court should change the common law and abrogate the defense of contributory negligence in certain types of tort actions. After reviewing the issue again, the court arrived at the same conclusion: that, although the court had the authority to change the common law rule of contributory negligence, it would decline to abrogate Maryland’s long-established common law principle of contributory negligence.

The opinion provides an interesting dialog as to which branch of government should decide such a substantial change to the tort law.  The majority and concurring opinions say that the issue of adoption of comparative fault is really one for the legislature to decide. Note my colleagues filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the American Tort Reform Association, Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, and others, arguing for continued application of the contributory negligence doctrine.

 

Why We Can't Sue Our Way to Prosperity

The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing earlier this week on "Can We Sue Our Way to Prosperity?: Litigation's Effect on America's Global  Competitiveness."

Speakers included a public policy expert from NERA; a law school professor; and my friend, esteemed litigator John Beisner.

Paul Hinton testified that the direct cost of the U.S. tort system is estimated to be approximately $250 billion in 2009 or about 2 percent of GDP.  The U.S. costs are the highest as a percent of GDP amongst those reported for other industrialized countries and more than double the estimates for countries such as the U.K, France, and Japan.  Small businesses bear a relatively larger share of tort costs than larger businesses.

Professor Silver from Texas tried to make the case that the civil justice systems contributes greatly to the prosperity of the U.S.  He seemed to think that litigation is the only thing that deters doctors from committing widespread medical malpractice.

John Beisner noted that given the lucrative potential of private lawsuits in the U.S., it is not surprising that fraud has crept into the system. One notable example is the fraud that may have  occurred with respect to asbestos bankruptcy trusts. In addition, some lawyers have engaged in questionable tactics to recruit clients – tactics that have encouraged the filing of frivolous or fraudulent claims. The most notorious of these efforts, he observed, have been the massive screening programs undertaken in the silica and welding-fume litigation, both of which resulted in the mass filing of meritless and even fraudulent claims – and forced defendants to spend huge sums of money defending themselves against groundless allegations. In addition, Beisner pointed out, more and more plaintiff lawyers are using the internet to troll for clients and sow dissatisfaction with products in advance, in the hopes of generating large bodies of claims against targeted defendants. "These efforts have contributed to the deluge of meritless lawsuits that clog the civil justice system."

Another troubling development he noted in the American civil justice system has been the rise in
foreign lawsuits with virtually no nexus to the United States. In addition to transnational tort cases, the American civil justice system has also seen an uptick in efforts to enforce foreign judgments in U.S. courts.

Although the enactment of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 dramatically reduced class-action abuse, several serious problems remain in the aggregate litigation arena, including (1) state attorney general actions; (2) the routine deprivation of due process in class actions that remain in state courts; and (3) mass joinder actions.

The hearing comes as the Judiciary Committee considers the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction
Act
, which would call for greater sanctions for Rule 11 violations to deal with frivolous claims. 
 

Senate Judiciary Committee Approves "Sunshine" Bill That Clouds Up Settlements

Here at MassTortDefense we know that while not the "sexy" part of litigation, the nuts and bolts of settlement agreements are crucial to clients.  That is why it caught our eye that the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved a bill that would require courts to consider so-called public health and safety concerns before approving the sealing of certain legal agreements and settlements in product liability suits.

The committee voted 12-6 to pass S. 623, the so-called Sunshine in Litigation Act. The bill would  prohibit a federal court, in any civil action in which the pleadings state facts relevant to the "protection of public health or safety," from entering an order restricting the disclosure of information obtained through discovery, or from approving a settlement agreement that would restrict such disclosure, or restricting access to court records, unless in connection with that order the court has first made certain findings of fact.  Specifically, the bill requires the court to find that: (1) the order would not restrict the disclosure of information relevant to the protection of public health or safety; or (2) the public interest in the disclosure of past, present, or potential health or safety hazards is outweighed by a specific and substantial interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the information, and the requested protective order is no broader than necessary to protect the confidentiality interest asserted.

The bill similarly would prohibit the court from enforcing any provision of a settlement agreement that prohibits a party from disclosing that a settlement was reached or the terms of the settlement, other than the amount paid, or from discussing the civil action, or evidence produced in it, that involves matters relevant to the protection of public health or safety -- unless, again, the court finds that the public interest in the disclosure of past, present, or potential health or safety hazards is outweighed by a specific and substantial interest in maintaining the confidentiality of the information or records in question, and the requested order is no broader than necessary to protect the confidentiality interest asserted.

Surprisingly Republican Senators. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Chuck Grassley, R.-Iowa, joined all 10 Democrat committee members in support. But the bill seems ill-conceived and even unnecessary. As pointed out by the American College of Trial Lawyers' Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Committee, the bill would establish an undesirable precedent by circumventing the procedure set out in the Rules Enabling Act that Congress established for amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. These kind of ad hoc legislative initiatives that address specific parts of the Federal Rules contradict the careful, open, deliberative, rigorous ways that the rules have been amended from time to time.

Moreover, the bill would would unduly restrict the discretion of trial judges to regulate civil litigation and would impose substantial new fact-finding burdens on the courts, without a demonstrated need for those changes.  There is no compelling evidence that protective orders governing discovery or confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements are frequently abused. Nor is there evidence that federal courts do not currently have the power to regulate those agreements. 

Moreover, as written, the bill would lead to more confusion, not less, regarding what information has to be released, and when.  As pointed out by Steve Zack, President of the ABA, the language is is vague and indefinite, threatening to sweep up many cases having little to do with true public health or safety.  And it certainly would  require the parties and courts to spend extensive time and resources litigating whether and how the statute applies.  The politicians seem to forget  that protective orders are critical to both plaintiffs and defendants, including by helping to safeguard against dissemination of highly personal sensitive information or trade secrets.  

Perhaps Congress should spend less time on restricting judicial discretion and more on seeing that federal judges are paid a market-competitive wage.  A district court judge on the bench since 1993 failed to receive a total of $283,100 in statutorily authorized but then-denied pay. Appellate court judges have lost even more.