New Bike Accident Opinion: Hager v. City of Annapolis

In a new Appellate Court of Maryland decision, the court addressed municipal liability for injuries sustained due to potentially negligent maintenance of public infrastructure.

The court examined the concepts of contributory negligence, where a plaintiff’s own negligence might offset the defendant’s liability, and the assumption of risk, assessing whether the plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily exposed himself to a known hazard. Additionally, the court addressed the sufficiency of the City’s notice regarding the potential danger of the storm grate and the relevance of past similar incidents. (Baltimore is always “the City” to me but it makes sense to abbreviate Annapolis that way here.)

While this is an unreported opinion, this case is instructive for understanding how Maryland courts navigate the complexities of these aspects of negligence law, particularly in the context of municipal responsibility and the nuances of contributory negligence and assumption of risk defenses.

Facts of Hager v. City of Annapolis

Hager was involved in a bicycle accident on the streets of Annapolis. While riding in a designated lane, his wheel became lodged in a gap between a storm grate and its frame, resulting in substantial facial injuries.  Foolishly, he was not wearing a helmet. But, as we will talk about, dumb is not always negligence, especially when Maryland law only mandates helmet use for individuals under 16. (I think is is a bad law but that is beside the point.)

Lawsuit Against Annapolis

Hager proceeded to file a lawsuit against the City of Annapolis, alleging negligence in maintaining the storm grate which led to his accident. The City, in its defense, argued that it was not liable for Hager’s injuries. Their argument hinged on the concepts of contributory negligence, asserting that Hager’s actions contributed to the accident, and the lack of notice about the potential danger posed by the grate.

Jury Verdict

The case went to trial, where a range of evidence was presented. Really good hustle by the plaintiff’s bike accident lawyer in a case capped at $400,000 by Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. Art. (“CJP”) § 5-303(a)(1) providing for a local
government’s damages cap of $400,000 per individual claim.

This included information about a similar past incident and expert testimony on storm water management and property maintenance. The jury was informed about the City’s prior acknowledgment of issues related to storm grates and their maintenance procedures. Despite the City’s claim of not having received any specific complaints about the grate in question, the jury found in favor of Hager. They ruled that the City was negligent and consequently liable for the injuries sustained by Hager, awarding him a sum of $300,000.

JNOV Motion

Following the verdict, the City moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), a legal motion that essentially requests the court to override the jury’s decision.

The City’s argument was centered around the premise that Hager was committing several violations related to bicycle laws at the time of the accident, which should render him contributorily negligent. However, this motion was rejected by the trial judge. The court’s ruling was heavily influenced by the evidence presented regarding the City’s negligence and the jury’s finding that Hager had neither contributed to his injuries through negligence nor had he assumed the risk of harm.

The Appeal

The City, dissatisfied with the outcome, appealed the decision. In its appeal, the City contended that the lower court had erred in denying its motion for JNOV, emphasizing Hager’s alleged traffic violations. The City argued these violations should have automatically rendered Hager contributorily negligent and assumed the risk of injury, thus negating their liability.

Contributory Negligence and Assumption of Risk

A central aspect of this case was the application of contributory negligence. In Maryland law, if a plaintiff’s negligence contributes to their injury, it can bar them from recovering damages.

The City of Annapolis argued that Hager was contributorily negligent for riding against traffic and without a helmet. But not wearing a seat belt or a helmet is not contributory negligence.

Additionally, the assumption of risk was a pivotal issue. This defense applies when a plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily encounters a known risk. The City contended that Hager, by violating traffic laws, had assumed the risk of his injuries. The court’s task was to determine whether Hager had actual knowledge of the risk and voluntarily chose to encounter it. The jury’s decision suggests a thorough evaluation of what Hager knew about the potential danger and his decision-making in that context. So the appellate court was not going to overturn the jury because it was a jury question, not an issue to be decided as a matter of law.

Municipal Liability and Notice

The case also delved into the City’s liability concerning the maintenance of its infrastructure. The City’s defense revolved around the assertion that they were not aware of the specific danger posed by the storm grate. This brought into question the City’s duty to maintain public infrastructure and whether they had constructive notice of potential hazards.

The court examined the City’s maintenance records and procedures, assessing whether the City should have reasonably known about the risk posed by the grate. The jury’s decision to hold the City liable indicates a finding that the City had, or should have had, adequate notice of the grate’s dangerous condition.

Relevance of Past Similar Incidents

Another significant aspect of the case was the consideration of a past similar incident as evidence. The court had to decide whether the previous incident involving a similar hazard was relevant to establishing the City’s notice of the danger. This required a delicate balance between the probative value of the evidence and the risk of unfair prejudice. The inclusion of this evidence suggests that the court found it relevant in establishing a pattern of negligence or oversight by the City concerning similar hazards.

Legal Implications of the Case

The case is particularly significant in understanding the application of Maryland’s negligence laws. It highlights the four elements necessary to establish negligence: the defendant’s duty of care, breach of this duty, actual loss or damage to the plaintiff, and the breach’s role as a proximate cause of the loss. In addition, the case illustrates the principles of contributory negligence and assumption of risk, common defenses in such scenarios. The court’s decision to let these matters be resolved by the jury, rather than ruling on them as a matter of law, sets an important precedent.

Moreover, the case delves into the nuanced areas of municipal liability, especially concerning the maintenance of public infrastructure and road safety. The jury’s decision to hold the City accountable, despite arguments regarding triviality and lack of prior notice, underscores there is no end run around proactive and diligent maintenance by municipal authorities if they want to avoid liability.