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Court of Appeals Takes Another Bite at Tracey v. Solesky

     “It’s a mystery! It’s a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma! The *@*%#&^ shooters don’t even know! Don’t you get it?”     – David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) to Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in the movie “JFK”

On the heels of the legislature’s failure to address the quagmire created by the Court of Appeals’ April ruling in Tracey v. Solesky, where the Court decreed that all pit bulls and cross-breed pit bulls were inherently dangerous and imposed a strict liability standard against owners and anyone harboring such dogs, the Court issued a revised ruling yesterday after a motion to reconsider was filed by Tracey’s attorneys.   In the initial decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that if a person is attacked by a dog that is a pit bull or a pit bull mix (a cross-breed pit bull), then the owner, or any other person (which in this case included a landlord) who has the right to control the pit bull’s presence on the subject premises who knows or should know that the dog is a pit bull or cross-breed pit bull, is strictly liable for the plaintiff’s damages.  This ruling, with respect to pit bulls and cross-breed pit bulls, abrogated the former common law negligence standard applicable to dog owners that required evidence that the owner knew or should have known that the specific dog had dangerous propensities.  This decision received harsh public criticism for its breed-specific stance, its harsh application of strict liability to landlords and other potential third persons who do not own the dog, and the overwhelming confusion that would be caused by determining what constituted a “pit bull or cross-breed pit bull” or what standard should be applied for determining whether a person should know that the dog is a “pit bull or cross-breed pit bull.”

In its revised ruling, Read more

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In the Social Media Era, Any Publicity is not Good Publicity for Insurance Companies

A Maryland insurance company has recently been placed squarely on the defensive in the press due to it recent defense of an uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM) insurance claim in court.  Actually, that is not entirely accurate.  The insurance company does not find itself this position because of the outcome in the court case.  Rather, the public scrutiny it now faces results directly from the evils of social media – the dreaded blog post.  Although to be fair to blogs (as I kind of have to be), the situation could have come from one of the many relatives of the blog, be it the Tweet, the Facebook post, the YouTube rant, MySpace, the message board comment, etc.  Despite having done nothing wrong, the insurer finds itself in a public relations nightmare, which in the internet age, maybe should not be all that surprising.

I will not identify the insurance company here or the specific case because (1) the company’s actions were completely appropriate; and (2) it does not matter which insurer it was – other insurers handle UM claims the same way, and any one of them could have found themselves in the same position. Read more

Maryland Legislature Rolls Over and Plays Dead on Pit Bull Legislation

               “Woof!”  – Gracie the Dog (trusted friend, avid squirrel chaser, and Pit Bull…or was she?)

               “Succumbing to the allure of bad facts leads inevitably to the development of bad law.” – Judge Clayton Greene, in his dissent in Tracey v. Solesky

In April, the Court of Appeals, by a 4-3 margin, issued a decision in the case of Tracey v. Solesky that effectively designated all “pit bulls” and “cross-bred pit bulls” as inherently dangerous animals, and the Court determined that the owning, harboring or controlling of these dogs was an inherently dangerous activity.  This resulted in the Court applying a strict liability standard against any person owning, harboring, or controlling pit bulls for any injuries stemming from a pit bull attack.  This was the first instance where a Maryland Court established a breed-specific standard of liability for dog attacks.  Liability stemming from owning, harboring, or controlling any non-pit bull dog remains subject to the old common law standard of whether the owner knew or should have known about the dog’s dangerous propensities.  In addition to the breed-specific nature of the ruling, the significant consequence of the Court’s opinion was that it applied this strict liability standard, not to the owner of the dog,  but to the owner’s landlord when the landlord knows or should know of the existence of a pit bull on the premises. Read more

Trying to Make a Picture Worth a Thousand Words in Auto Cases

It is widely accepted that demonstrative evidence, such as photographs can make a larger impression on a jury than testimony.  In essence, people respond to evidence that they can visualize.  In litigation, it is the attorney’s task to provide context to the jury about what they are seeing and why it is important.  In no type of case can photographs be more beneficial than in automobile accident cases.  Plaintiff’s attorneys often offer photographs showing extensive property damage to vehicles involved in an accident.  Alternatively, when the damage involved in an automobile accident is relatively minimal, defense attorneys routinely use vehicle photos to suggest to the jury that serious injuries could not have been caused by an accident involving such minimal property damage.   As much as it is common practice in auto tort cases to offer photographs of vehicle damage, it is equally common that the movant will face an objection by the opposing party, who will argue that the photographs are prejudicial to their client.  When an objection is made, it is then up to the trial judge to determine whether the photographs can be admitted.

While there is little doubt that photographs of vehicles are relevant in auto tort case, if for no other reason to assist the jury in visualizing the nature of the accident itself, there may be instances where the trial judge will determine that the photographs cause more prejudice to the opposing party than they offer in probative value.  Several years ago, the Maryland Court of Appeals reaffirmed that whether photographs of vehicle damage should be admitted is left to the sound discretion of the trial judge. Mason v. Lynch, 388 Md. 37 (2005).  In Mason, the Court upheld a trial court’s admission of vehicle photographs tending to show minimal damage, which the Plaintiff argued caused the jury to return a verdict of $0.   In doing so, the Court of Appeals reiterated that such photographs have relevance and specifically rejected the notion that expert testimony proffering a correlation between the photographs and an injury (or lack thereof) was necessary.  It concluded: “That there may be some automobile accidents, in which very minor impacts lead to serious personal injuries, and vice versa, does not mean that evidence concerning the impact is irrelevant to the extent of the injuries.  Relevancy under [MD Rule 5-401] involves probabilities; complete certainty is not ordinarily required.”

Because the Court of Appeals in Mason specifically reaffirmed that vehicle damage photos are relevant and it upheld their admission, it is often forgotten that the Court’s ultimate holding was that the admission of photographs was within the sound discretion of the trial court, and will not be overturned unless there was an abuse of discretion.  In fact, the Court made it a point to state that it will not only be very rare for an appellate court to reverse a trial court’s admission of photographs, but that it would also be rare to reverse a trial court’s refusal to admit photographs.  Attorneys, then, should not take for granted that their photographs will be admitted by a trial court.  In particular, in most State Court cases, the attorney will not know their trial judge until only days before the trial.  Accordingly, if the attorney intends to make “no damage” photos an essential element of his/her argument, then it may benefit the attorney to utilize expert testimony.  Read more